The Battle of Falkirk was an epic disaster in the history of Scotland, which led the notorious William Wallace into the abyss of obscurity. In strategic terms, however, it was not that ruinous for the country as a whole in its aftermath, as Edward I failed to take full advantage of his victory and was forced to retreat without any significant conquests.
After the death of the great Scottish King Alexander III and during the ensuing succession crisis, Edward I of England became very ambitious, dreaming of incorporating Scotland into his territories (which already included much of Ireland). Following his first invasion of the country in 1296, the English King managed to briefly gain the loyalty of most Scottish lords, but resistance intensified next year under two charismatic leaders, William Wallace in the south-west and Andrew de Moray in the Highlands. Eventually, while Edward was busy fighting Philip IV of France, these two leaders combined forces and defeating the remaining English forces at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, liberated Scotland and even raided northern England, deeply infuriating Edward I. The English King was now determined to subdue the rebellious Scots at all costs.
Edward Longshanks, who had been ruling gloriously for more than two-and-a-half decades, had firmly decided to unite the island of Great Britain once and for all. Therefore, concluding a temporary peace treaty with France, he gathered huge forces, estimated to have reached 15,000 (with 2,500 knights) and invaded Scotland once again in the summer of 1298. The plan was simple; find the filthy Wallace and crush him with brute force (note that Moray had died shortly after Stirling Bridge). The reality, however, turned out to be more complicated.
William Wallace’s background was completely different from that of Edward. A member of the lesser nobility, Wallace had climbed the ranks by gaining nationwide popular support due to his resistance efforts against the English occupation. After the victory at Stirling Bridge, he was left as the most powerful leader of the Scottish independence movement, and was recognised as the “Protector” of Scotland, a temporary regent until King John Balliol could be liberated from English captivity. Wallace was a guerrilla warrior at heart, and initially tried to avoid any direct confrontation with the massive English army, trying to force Edward to retreat due to unbearable attrition damage. After all, the number disparity between the two forces was probably close to three to one.
Enemy in Sight
Edward departed from Roxburgh at the border of Scotland on 3rd July, encountering little resistance on the way. However, Wallace greeted his large army in a subtler way; much of the crops and fortifications on the way were destroyed by Scottish partisans as the English army approached. Edward tried receiving his provisions through sea, but bad weather delayed the arrival of ships from England. The supply situation quickly became so desperate that some contingents of Edward’s army came close to a full-blown mutiny, but the unrest was fortunately kept in check for long enough. Eventually, at some field on marshy land near a small stream, Edward was greeted by a happy surprise; Wallace had decided to risk a pitched battle. The exact location of the Battle of Falkirk is still debated, although it was clearly situated somewhere along River Carron in the Central Belt.
The motives of Wallace are hard to understand. It is clear, however, that he grossly underestimated the potential consequences of this decision. Instead of simply forcing Edward to abandon the campaign due to logistical considerations, as he would many times after 1298, Wallace needed to overcome an army of 15,000 with his (at best) 5,000 soldiers. It is clear that there must have been a great deal of pressure behind this decision. In those times, it was extremely hard for a hero like Wallace to successfully resort to asymmetric warfare without receiving considerable backlash at home. Furthermore, with the re-arrival of the English army, many Scottish lords had once again started pleading allegiance to the English throne, infuriating the Scottish loyalists, and probably Wallace himself too. They could not lose any more territory. It is likely that Wallace was aware of the internal tensions in Edward’s camp, and probably decided to avail of the opportunity. In fact, as we shall see, Wallace had chosen an excellent defensive position and might very well have driven off the English army once again like at Stirling Bridge, had it not been to the desertion of most of his cavalry.
The Battle of Falkirk
The tactical manoeuvres of the action that ensued are relatively well-known. Wallace chose his position in front of a wet marshland on high ground. As the English army closed in on 22nd July, he deployed much of his infantry in four shiltrons (a compact body of troops forming a battle array). Each infantryman holding a spear up to four metres long, this formation was a traditional Scottish defence against cavalry and was highly effective. Wallace allegedly proclaimed after forming his unit: “I have brought you to the ring, it is up to you to dance now”!
Indeed, Edward was reluctant to allow a conventional cavalry charge over this dangerous terrain, much to the disappointment of his overjoyed companions. He instead sent parties to try circumventing the Shiltrons. One of these parties, under Bishop Anthony Bek, spiralled out of control and rushed towards the Scottish lines, with the predictable devastating results. A second attack reached the same fate, before Edward managed to stop these suicidal attempts. Instead, Edward chose, throwing away the chivalrous concerns about cowardice, to harass and break the Scottish pike formation with his Longbowmen. The Scottish archers did their best to counter this threat, but in vain. At this crucial moment, Wallace discovered that most of his knights had either slowly disappeared or were unable to risk a tactical charge to stop the enemy long-range pressure. Gradually, the Scottish formation began to disintegrate, and a well-timed English charge succeeded to wreak havoc in the remaining ranks of the Scots. Wallace’s aid-de-camp, Sir John de Graham, was also killed in action, but apart from that, the losses of Scottish notables were minimal. It was the recruited infantry that bore the brunt of the casualties of this battle.
Both Sides Fail
In the aftermath of the battle, it is probably fair to say that none of the two opponents won the battle. Although the tactical victory clearly belonged to Edward, he had failed to eliminate an adequate number of the Scottish high command to minimise resistance, losing his only chance during the campaign to do so. The supply situation was also far from resolved, both factors which eventually obliged Edward to return, even after reaching Stirling and residing there for a few weeks.
On the other hand, although the blood of the martyrs of the Battle of Falkirk had not gone in vain (Scotland was saved, after all), William Wallace, the hero of Scotland, was personally consumed by the humiliation suffered at the battle. Wallace retained his position as the Protector until December, when he voluntarily stepped down in favour of Robert the Bruce, the future King of Scotland. Afterwards, Wallace went to continental Europe to gain support for the Scottish cause against Edward I, with little success. He eventually returned after Scotland once again fell to England in 1303 and continued his guerrilla resistance. Unfortunately, Wallace was finally captured and executed in August 1305, about two years before Robert Bruce started gaining a significant edge over England in northern Scotland, which would eventually lead to full liberation in 1314.
Image: Carron Valley stream