As the First War of Scottish Independence raged on, William Wallace and his supporters continued in their defiance against their English oppressors. The country had been dominated by King Edward I of England, the self-pronounced King of Scotland, who had secured a firm grip on the Scottish lands. He had appointed his associates as sheriffs and justices of the land to maintain English control, was recruiting Scottish men to support his conflicts in Flanders and was crippling the people with his taxes. The Scottish people were growing increasingly restless, with many men joining local rebellions across the country in the hopes of regaining their independence. William Wallace was securing followers and prominence as the leader of his rebellion in the south of Scotland. The Raid on Scone saw William de Ormesby abandon his post and flee, allowing Wallace to take back control of the city.
Meanwhile, Andrew Moray was leading a rebellion of his own in the north. The Morays were a well-established family, with many important political connections in Scotland, and held extensive lands to which Andrew Moray was the heir. Following the Battle of Dunbar in the previous year, he and his father were captured by the English troops. His father was taken to the Tower of London, where he would die in 1298. Moray however, was imprisoned in Chester Castle, south of Liverpool. Through his determination, Moray managed to escape from the prison, making the journey back to the north of Scotland where he would soon declare his defiance to the English rule. The news spread, and he too was gaining loyal followers in his rebellion. The English constable of Urquhart Castle on the Loch Ness shore wrote to King Edward I, “some evil disposed people have joined Andrew Moray”. Moray and his supporters continued to press on, regaining control of castles across the north of Scotland (including Urquhart Castle). In response, Edward ordered his loyal Scottish nobles to march from Aberdeen to Enzie to quash the rebels – but it’s believed they weren’t as dedicated as Edward had hoped and they ultimately agreed to go their separate ways, not wishing to fight.
Edward’s grip over Scotland was weakening and he decided that the only way to effectively regain control was to initiate an invasion without mercy. Beyond the River Forth, the only remaining English stronghold was Dundee Castle. Frustrated with his lieutenant, John de Warenne, the Earl of Surrey’s lack of initiative against these uprisings, King Edward ordered that de Warenne gather an army and prepare for battle. William Wallace and Andrew Moray had now joined forces and along with their men, lay in wait in Stirling – a city on the River Forth, north-west of Edinburgh. Preparing for the English attack, Wallace and Moray positioned their men near the bridge at Stirling, on the north bank of the river at Abbey Craig which overlooked the city. The Scottish troops were mainly comprised of infantry with long spears, and were largely peasants and the ‘lessers’ of society, since so many of the Scottish noblemen were being held as captives. With the knowledge of the number of Scottish rebels that were to face him, John de Warenne and his army set up camp on the south bank of the river, with the narrow wooden bridge dividing the two forces. Hoping to better survey the area, the English troops would remain there for days.
In the early morning of 11 September 1297, the troops were dispatched across the bridge only to be called back because their commander, John de Warenne, had overslept. After successfully waking up, again the troops were sent across the bridge, to be called back a second time after Warenne changed tactics and opted to try and negotiate. Warenne sent James Stewart and two friars as his representatives to cross the narrow bridge and begin talks with the Scots. To this, Wallace responded: “We are not here to make peace but to do battle to defend ourselves and liberate our kingdom. Let them come and we shall prove this to their very beards.” An English knight said, “my lords, if we go on to the bridge we are dead men” and suggested to Warenne that they lead a band of men across a shallow section of the river upstream, that would allow a small cavalry to conceal their crossing and outflank the Scots. John de Warenne was dissuaded after someone pointed out that he’d already wasted too much of the Crown’s money and instead launched his attack across the bridge, hoping to bring the conflict to a swift end. The bridge was so narrow that only two men on horseback could pass side-by-side, and after which they would be confined to a narrow ring of land within the river banks, but it was decided this was the safest option.
As the English troops made their slow crossing of the bridge, the Scots waited, until “as many of the enemy had come over as they believed they could overcome”. Once 2,000 English troops had made the crossing, the Scots seized the moment and launched their attack. Their spearmen descended from the hill to face the English cavalry and infantry, taking control of the east side of the bridge which prevented any reinforcing English troops from coming to their defence. The English troops were outnumbered, surrounded and compromised, with no way to escape. It’s believed some may have swam across the river to safety, but most were killed during the battle. Warenne stayed put to the south of the river with the remainder of his army, but had lost all confidence after witnessing the slaughter of his men. He ordered that the bridge be destroyed and burned to prevent the Scots from crossing, and fled, making his retreat to Berwick and abandoning the lands and his remaining troops at Stirling Castle.
Whilst the number of Scottish casualties remains unknown, it is estimated that 5,000 English troops were killed in the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Bower’s Scotichronicon describes, “the Scots vanquished the English, whom they put into mourning for death, as the bridge bears witness, where the great battle is recorded, which lies beyond Stirling on the River Forth.” Following the battle, Wallace was named “guardian of the kingdom of Scotland and commander of its army”. He and his followers continued their attacks in the hopes that Edward I would concede defeat, working their way south as far as Durham in England and burning over 700 villages in the process. Moray, who was wounded during the conflict, later died in November 1297 and was buried at Fortrose Cathedral, north of Inverness. The commemorative Wallace Monument now stands on the hill of the Abbey Craig, overlooking Stirling. The battle became the stuff of legends, told and re-told through highly dramatic accounts, including the 1995 film Braveheart which bears little resemblance to the true events. The Battle of Stirling Bridge was the first recorded battle in European history in which a common army were able to defeat a heavily armed and mounted feudal army. The battle also served to crush the notion of English invincibility – it was the first Scottish victory against a major English army since the Dark Ages.
Image: Stirling Bridge