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
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 beseiging 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 temporise, 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 clamoured 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, for 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 judgement, 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
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
The Old Stirling Bridge -- Parts
Collapse of 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 himselfand was used by the
Flemish against the Frech cavalry in 1302 and again, much perfected, by
Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn in 1314.
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 soilders 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 practised 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 recieved
in the battle of Stirling Bridge. He died weeks later in bed of infection
and Wallace was alone in his defence 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 Januarary, 1298.
Wallace's leadership had eight months yet to run, and few if any men have
had so remarkable an influence in so short a time. His example was
inspirational, his courage infectious, and his victory at Stirling Bridge a
hinge upon which the door of the future turned. It is clear that he saw
himself as a patriot, though the word had as yet little meaning for
Scotland. The sense of unity, of nationhood, that had been growing in the
reign of Alexander III, flowered first in Wallace. Love of his country,
which changed him from an outlaw to a national leader in a few weeks, was
stiffened by a hatred of the English. Stories of his relentless lack of
mercy toward some of his captives were long disbelieved. They did not fit
the conventional pattern of a hero. But the age had little mercy for all
men, and this century has shown that those who resist a powerful and
inexorable occupation cannot afford its luxury. Wallace's determination to
destroy the enemy, wherever and whenever he met it, never to bargain with
it, was the greatness of his strength. Such a man had been dreamt of, and by
his coming inspired love, unity and sacrifice.
A Final thought On Sir William
There are so many versions of William Wallace to read out there it can spin
one's head. I have read he was a knight, a villian, a thief and brigand, a
commomer and a marter for the church (?).... Yet, no matter what version of
William Wallace you read, one single impression is left by the author(s),
who is often writing more of a personal story of Wallace than a historically
accurate account. To add to this, my thoughts are reflected below:
When we read the story of William Wallace, imagination wanders back to the
times of herioc antiquity, and enthusiasm can scarcely keep pace with reason
in forming an estimate of his services to his country. He gave new birth to
his land, and interested the sympathies of the world in behalf of her
gallant struggle for existence. Personal wrong and the grinding oppression
practised on his friends first stung him into revolt; but his passion soon
hardened into principle, like the burning lava converted into stone. Against
the victorious might of England he threw himself, and carved his way to
honour. Castles changed masters; ridicule gave way to reflection; the
oppressor designed to assign reasons for his oppression; injury and insult
were followed by retaliation and revenge; the haughty Plantagenent found
himself no longer invincible; and conquest gained by many intrigible, and
much artful policy, vanished like a dream. But Wallace remains a hero.