In Their Very Beards: The Battle of Stirling Bridge

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Tell your commander that 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 in their very beards.
– William Wallace, prior to the Battle of Stirling Bridge

Today marks 719 years since the Battle of Stirling Bridge, one of the most important engagements in Edward’s invasion of Scotland.* By 1296, the invasion was considered a resounding success: the town of Berwick was sacked, the inept Scottish aristocracy were conquered at Dunbar, and John Balliol dethroned as Toom Tabard. Edward’s host simply paraded up the East Coast of Scotland, where the nobility meekly acknowledged his overlordship without so much as a challenge. Castle after castle simply surrendered to Edward, some without a fight: allegedly the garrison at Stirling simply fled, and left the keys to the castle to be handed over by the porter. Upon crossing the border south, Edward’s opinion of the Scottish “resistance” was indicative of his respect to the nation: “Bon besoigne fait qy de merde de delivrer.” I’ll let readers translate it.

Logically, then, Scotland became little more than a vassal state of Edward: he took Scotland’s records, the Black Rood, the Stone of Destiny, and other articles of the Scottish nation as loot. With no king and most of the nobility swearing formal homage, how could it be otherwise?

Edward would find that there’s more to a nation than the gentry in a matter of months.

The Wallace Raises His Head

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“The common folk of the land followed him as their leader and ruler; the retainers of the great lords adhered to him; and even though the lords themselves were present with the English king in body, at heart they were on the opposite side.”
– Walter of Guisborough, of William Wallace

Edward’s hold over Scotland was lost as quickly as it was “won”: the ease with which the Scottish nobility were cowed by England’s military might did not reflect the mood of the people – a depressingly recurring theme throughout Scotland’s history – and by 1297, most of Scotland revolted. Hugh de Cressingham, the infamous “Treasurer” of Scotland, decreed that all Scottish wool was to be sold in Flanders to finance England’s war against France: adding to the outrage were rumours that Scottish men were to be conscripted to fight in that war.

Andrew Murray was a squire at the Battle of Dunbar: he saw first-hand the ruthless efficiency of Edward’s war machine, as well as the inadequate tactics of the Scottish nobility of the time. He quickly escaped captivity at Chester Castle, and returned to the North-East, where he was instrumental in leading the North against Edward. In the West, clergymen – particularly the Bishop of Glasgow, Robert Wishart – disseminated ideas of Scottish nationhood and rejection of English domination. Likewise, though the majority of disgraced Scottish lords put their own wealth and interests ahead of their nation, there were some who resisted: James the Stewart, and the Earl of Carrick, who will go on to lead the Scots to eventual victory in 1314. Yet even these men were either captured, or capitulated to the English, in the notorious Debacle of Irvine – but even then, the flame of Scotland burned. It was in 1297 that William Wallace roared into history.

Following Wallace’s slaughter of Sheriff William Heselrig at Lanark, the English soon found themselves no longer masters, but prisoners, of the Scots, as the beleagured Hugh de Cressingham stated in a letter to his king:

By far the greater part of your counties in the Scottish kingdom are still not provided with keepers because they have been killed, besieged or imprisoned or have abandoned their bailiwicks and dare not go back. And in some shires the Scots have appointed and established bailiffs and officials. Thus no shire is properly kept save for Berwickshire and Roxburghshire and they only recently.
– Hugh de Cressingham, 24th July 1297

As Murray secured the North, Wallace swept across the South. At first, Edward sent Scottish lords to quell the rebellion – it had little effect, perhaps for the reasons suggested by Walter of Guisborough above. When Wallace freed Perth and Fife, he joined with Murray’s host to retake Dundee. Once the last great bastion north of the Forth was regained for the Scots, the consolidated Scottish army then went south to Stirling. An English army was on its way.

Edward did not lead this army: he was already resuming his war with the French. Of the Scottish conscripts he expected to take with him to Flanders, only ten knights and twenty-five men-at-arms sailed with him. They deserted him at the first opportunity that came by, and returned home to Scotland. Seeing that the Scottish lords couldn’t be trusted to crush the “rebellion,” Edward appointed John de Warrene, Earl of Surrey and commander of the English host at Dunbar, as the “warden of the kingdom and land of “Scotland.”

Surrey mustered his host. Joining him were the Yorkshireman Marmaduke de Thweng, who brought his young nephew along to the fight; the Constable of Stirling Castle, Richard Waldegrave; the Constable of Urquhart Castle, William FitzWarin, who had unfinished business with Andrew Murray; and the infamous Cressingham. Leading the Scots were Wallace and Murray, two knights leading as kings. The two hosts met each other on opposite sides of the River Forth: the English on the south side at Stirling Castle, the Scots on the north near Abbey Craig. With the Forth widening in the east to the sea, and treacherous marshlands to the west, the only nearby crossing was a narrow wooden bridge.

The Battle

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“My lords if we cross the bridge we are dead men. For we can only go over two by two and the enemy are already formed up; their whole army can charge down upon us whenever they will.”
– Richard Lundie advises the Earl of Surrey that crossing the bridge would lead to disaster

“It will do us no good my lord earl, either to go bickering like this or to waste the king’s money in vain manoeuvres. So let us cross over right away and do our duty as we are bound to.”
– Cressingham’s advice to Surrey seals the English army’s fate

While the exact numbers of the forces on either side of the battle are uncertain, most modern estimates tend to be rather more modest than the 50,000 Englishmen as recorded by the likes of Guisborough or Barbour. Pete Armstrong in Osprey’s Stirling Bridge & Falkirk 1297-98: William Wallace’s Rebellion suggests total numbers of 6,700 English to 6,580 Scottish present on the battlefield, while others have some 10,000 English soldiers against around 6,000 Scots. Regardless, the English army were regarded as effective soldiers and warriors: the Scots were dismissed as a ragtag gaggle of peasants. Surrey had proven the English superiority over the Scots’s “finest” at Dunbar the year before: surely this would be a repeat performance?

It was this arrogance which convinced the English commanders to simply walk their vanguard over the bridge, presuming the Scottish army would do the chivalrous thing and allow them to do so. But the Scots were not a host of gentlemanly knights bound by the order of battle – they were fighters driven to desperation by oppression and tyranny, who were not of the mood nor the temper to simply give their enemy the luxury of a timely preparation.

Wallace and Murray did wait, though: they wanted to see if the English were committed to crossing the Forth. The first soldiers cantered leisurely across the bridge: Cressingham led the English Vanguard, Waldegrave led the castle garrison, and Marmaduke led his hundred-and-fifty armoured knights across the bridge. Then, the infantry marched across – Welsh conscripts, English yeomen, and men-at-arms. The soldiers lined up on the other side, only to find themselves caught in a loop in the river – they were surrounded on three sides by water, with a horde of enraged Scots on the fourth.

At 11 o’clock, roughly a third of the English army made its way across the bridge. It was clear Surrey was going to take the fight to the Scots. Wallace and Murray made the order to attack.

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Wallace and Murray had trained their soldiers into schiltrons – a close formation of thousands of men, six ranks deep, each brandishing long spears, which faced outward in a spiny crown of death. Spears were a vital feature of warfare in Scotland since the days of the Picts, but after centuries of heavy cavalry’s dominance, they would soon return to overthrow the rule of the knight on the field of battle. When the full English vanguard had alighted north of the Forth, the horns pealed from Abbey Craig, and the schiltroms began their implacable march. To the English, the sight of thousands of spears advancing towards them must have seemed like a forest had come alive.

The English reacted quickly, ordering their feared longbowmen to loose their volleys – but it was too late. As soon as the first volley struck, the terrible forest of spears began to lower – their iron heads pointed squarely at the English. The determined stride broke into a charge, and the English – horsemen, spearmen, and archers alike – could do nothing but brace for the impact of thousands of Scottish bodies concentrated into a thousand lances. The spears thrust relentlessly into the panicking English ranks, skewering the front ranks, and forcing the rear ranks into the river to drown. When the Scots reached the bridge, all avenues of escape were closed – be slain by the Scots, or drown in the river.

Surrey could only watch in stupefied horror as the English vanguard, the same calibre of warriors who so effectively trounced the cream of the Scottish nobility at Falkirk, were now being annihilated in their hundreds. Ironically, it was the lightly-armed and armoured Welsh conscripts who survived, by simply swimming to escape: all but one of the heavily armoured knights, men-at-arms, and mercenaries could not. The Stirling garrison, including their constable, were slaughtered; Cressingham was unceremoniously wrought from his horse and – quite literally – carved to pieces.

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Of all the commanders who crossed Stirling Bridge, only Marmaduke de Thweng fought his way back. He rallied what remained of his troops, and although he could have risked the rapidly reddening depths of the Forth, Marmaduke chose instead to bite the bridle and charge right back across the bridge – which, by now, was swarming with furious Scots in a wall of spears. Nonetheless, his heavily armoured horsemen were resilient enough to break through the Scots ranks. As he crossed, he heard a familiar cry – his nephew’s horse was slain, and the boy was surrounded by Scots. Marmaduke immediately dismounted, hoisted the lad onto his squire’s horse, and resumed his bloody charge across the bridge.

Marmaduke’s defiant return across the bridge was not enough to steel the resolve of a devastated English army: as soon as the Yorkshireman was across the bridge, Surrey ordered the bridge to be destroyed – better to deny the Scots passage to the south and escape with their lives than lose even more men in further bloodshed. The surviving English forces retreated for Berwick. Wallace and Murray were triumphant – though Murray’s wounds were too great, and he succumbed shortly after his greatest victory. Whatever shame he may have felt after Dunbar and Irvine, he more than proved himself a Scottish hero at Stirling Bridge, and Wallace proved himself a warrior worth following.

The lallans belonged to the Scots once again.

Aftermath

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Surrey not only abandoned Stirling and the Lallans to the Scots – he abandoned Scotland itself, and fled home to England. FitzWarin and Marmaduke had Stirling Castle placed into their care, but it was swiftly conquered by the Scots, and the two knights ransomed after a period of captivity. The victory for the Scottish forces at Stirling Bridge was monumental. It proved not only that the English forces could be defeated, but that there were men worth rallying behind against the seemingly indomitable Edward. Two Scottish lords – James the Stewart, and the Earl of Lennox – observed the battle from a vantage point near the crossing. While Stewart historically supported the Cause, he was one of the nobles who capitulated to the English at Irvine – he and Lennox were part of Surrey’s army. Yet seeing the stunning Scottish victory before their eyes, they started to believe again. They switched sides, and attacked the English supply train at the Pows. This, and the reappearance of the Earl of Carrick, signified a change in the wind.

The English response – after the shock – was a frantic flurry of action. The sheriffs of Nottingham and Derby were ordered north to reinforce the vulnerable borders from Scottish predations; the threat of an English civil war was quickly extinguished by the fear of Scottish retaliation; Edward was forced to take his mind off his French conquests. While Wallace himself would never have a pitched battle victory quite like Stirling Bridge, he ensured the almost complete evacuation of English occupation from Scottish lands – until the return of the Hammer.

Even after his personal defeat at Falkirk a year later, and his murder in 1305, Wallace’s legacy loomed large in Scotland. Edward’s belief that his second campaign and domination of the nobility had put an end to “the Scottish business.” Yet once again, it was only a matter of months that Scotland proved it would not be so easily conquered: the Earl of Carrick, inspired by Wallace’s determination, threw himself past the point of no return. After years of opportunistic switching of loyalties between Scotland and England, he sealed his fate in Greyfriar’s Church. Edward would never make it to Scotland, and his son did not inherit his talent. Wallace brought something unusual, something precious, to the Scottish spirit that has lasted ever since. Even when it seemed all the nobility of Scotland was against him, he would not turn against the people; even when it seemed the English King’s overlordship was unquestionable, he would not swear fealty; even when it seemed Scotland was lost, he fought on.

It is not for nothing that Scotland’s greatest poets and writers, from Barbour and Scott to Burns and Tranter, hold him in such high esteem – nor is it an accident that he was recast as a “Unionist” hero throughout the 19th Century:

What mind can now conceive, what tongue can now portray, the blessings which their heroic stand have conferred, not merely on their own country, but evidently on their powerful and their hostile neighbours, and upon the united British Empire! It has given us the inestimable blessing of independence — that blessing, the greatest which man can enjoy, — which must be taken, and cannot be given. It has done more: it has given union, strength, and happiness to the whole British Empire; for, by preventing the subjugation by force, it has left room for the union by inclination. It is thus, and thus alone, that the pacification of Great Britain could have been rendered complete, and the empire raised to the exalted destinies designed for it by Providence.

The Scots are a proud people; and no wonder they are so, since they are almost the only people in modern Europe who have never been conquered. Other nations have been repeatedly subdued. The Romans, the Saxons, the Danes, the Normans, the Goths, the Saracens, have overrun their territories and enslaved their inhabitants; but, though often pierced to the heart, the Scots have never been permanently overcome; and within a few miles of this place, the mountain-barrier of the Grampians tells us that within them the foot of the spoiler has never penetrated; that the language of their inhabitants has never been changed; and that their hoary summits saw the eagle of the Legions, equally with the standards of the Plantagenet, roll back. Envy, unable to deny this, has sometimes said that Scotland has never been conquered because it was not worth conquering; but indelible monuments, as well as the truth of history, tell a different tale. The numerous and vast Roman camps around us show what great and persevering efforts the ancient masters of the world made to annex ‘ the land of the mountain and the flood ‘ to their mighty dominion. The English annals tell us that not once, but ten times, English armies, the conquerors of Cressy and Agincourt, of fifty and sixty thousand men, have invaded Scotland, hoping to convert it, as they had done Wales, into an English county.

Yet all their efforts were made in vain, and after a warfare, almost continued, of three centuries, Scotland was still unsubdued. Then, in an auspicious hour, the ancient Scottish sovereign, the descendant of Bruce, ascended the British throne; and this union of the two divisions of Great Britain, so obviously designed by Providence, was effected on the most durable and effectual of all bases — that of mutual respect. ‘What God hath joined together, let not man put asunder!’

– “The Immortal Memory of Sir William Wallace,” The Book of Wallace, Reverend Charles Rogers

As our understanding of history changes, so much our response – and what we learn from it. “Those days are past now…”

Stirling Bridge stands as the day William Wallace became more than a man; more than a patriot; more than a hero. It was the day he became a legend.

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*Stuart McHardy puts a convincing argument in his book Scotland’s Future History that “the Scottish Wars of Independence” is a misnomer. Most wars of independence centre around an area or territory declaring independence from an existing state, and the successful rebellion leading to the establishment of a new state: this was the case with most former colonies of British, Spanish, Portuguese and French Empires. Since Scotland was an independent nation for 453 years before the invasion, and the “rebellion” against Edward took mere months to manifest, can it really be called a War of Independence at all?

7 thoughts on “In Their Very Beards: The Battle of Stirling Bridge

  1. agm24 says:

    Excellent summary of some true national heroes. Always had a real admiration for Wallace, it’s a shame that many unionists associate him too readily with Braveheart and its historical inaccuracies. He was one of our finest.

  2. kailyard rules says:

    Braveheart is Hollywood. Ars gratia artis. Translated from the celluloid that is arse grating arties.

  3. Let’s not squabble about Braveheart! I loved this film and it certainly got me to react with feeling towards a person so dedicated to this Country. It was full of passion and pride and that is good enough and the thing I’d rather have in a Picture.

  4. kailyard rules says:

    Mea culpa Geraldine. I’ve come back on to apologise for my stupid remark 12/09 @ 1:56. The Braveheart word triggers irrational response from me. Working on it.
    Had a lifetime of watching some great productions from the film industry, including Hollywood , so sorry to them also.

  5. […] on the Battle of Stirling Bridge (obviously without the, erm, bridge), which happened 719 years ago last Sunday. It’s a largely fictionalised account of the battle, but there’s one aspect that is […]

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