scottish history
A service from

One, Two

The Highland Clearances

Scottish Origins... up to William Wallace

The Battle of Stirling Bridge

Battle of Falkirk & Execution of Wallace

History of the Kilt

Patrick Geddes

Tragedy at Glencoe


The Battle of Stirling Bridge
Chapter Two: William Wallace - a Brief Look at the Man

One, Two
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Statue of Sir William Wallace.
[Statue of Sir Wiliam Wallace]
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). Harrassed 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 landownder. 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 effiency, sometimes barbarously, in a guerilla 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 hugh 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 harrassment 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, Edwards 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.

Stirling Castle.
[Stirling Castle]
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 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 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 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 -- Parts

Collapse of Stirling Bridge.
[Stirling Bridge parts]
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.

The Aftermath
* * * * * * * * *
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:

Wallace monument.
[Wallace Monument]
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.

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