William Wallace led his troops to victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge on the 11th of September, 1297.
Sir William Wallace is one of the most recognised figures of Scottish history. His deeds as ‘Braveheart’ took place over a very short period of time and he only fought two major battles against the English invaders. Wallace’s record was 1:1, but the battle he won was a magnificent result. Scotland at the time was without its King as John Balliol was held prisoner in the Tower of London after having lost the Battle of Dunbar, in 1295. Thereafter, the country was governed as an English province by John de Warenne, the Earl of Surrey. Some Scottish Nobles made a half-hearted attempt at resisting the proxy rule of the English King, Edward I, but that came to nothing at the debacle of Irvine on the 1st of July, 1297, without a single blow being struck for freedom. By then, in stark contrast to his countrymen and in the words of one English chronicler, William Wallace had “raised his head.” Wallace was motivated more by patriotism than by thought of personal gain and by midsummer had led his guerilla army in a revolt on behalf of their King. Wallace’s actions were uncoordinated and sporadic, however, his uprising was mirrored in the north by Sir Andrew de Moray. Between the two of them and by the end of August, 1297, they had captured Inverness, Elgin, Banff, Aberdeen, Irvine, and Fife, to leave most of the country north of the Forth in Scottish hands. They were jointly acknowledged, by their followers at least, as ‘Commanders of the Army of the Kingdom of Scotland and the Community of the Realm’.
Much has been made of the ‘inactivity’ of the Scottish Nobles, but many of them were caught between a rock and a hard place. Some, like Alexander Comyn and the Earl of Buchan, were held captive, under honour, in England. When these two were released on condition that they quelled the revolt of Wallace and Moray, the best that can be said is that they procrastinated on Scotland’s behalf. They sent letters to Edward, expressing loyalty and hopes of success, then did nothing but watch and wait. Other Scottish Nobles were either serving with Edward I in Flanders, captive in England or hamstrung by hostages. Two characters did get involved. They were James the Steward and the Earl of Lennox, who had been hovering around wondering which side to support. They approached de Warenne on his way to Stirling and offered to parley with Wallace and Moray, but on the 10th of September, they returned with the news that Wallace had refused to yield. These two ‘nobles’ then promised to contribute sixty men to the English cause. However, to give them some small credit, upon the following day they returned with only a handful of men, claiming that they were unable to persuade any more of Wallace’s men to defect. In a final prelude, the Earl of Surrey offered Wallace and Moray the opportunity to surrender, sending two Dominican friars to invite Wallace to accept the King's peace, with a promise of generous treatment. The result was an emphatic ‘no’ in the form of William Wallace’s first recorded speech. “Tell your people that we have not come here to gain peace, but are prepared for battle, to avenge and deliver our country. Let them come up when they like, and they will find us ready to meet them even to their beards,” he retorted.
The Battle of Stirling Bridge took place on the 11th of September, 1297, by the original wooden bridge on the north bank of the River Forth at Stirling, in the shadow of Abbey Craig. The bridge was the only effective means of crossing the Forth, other than the fords upstream at Cambuskenneth and Kildean, which were only passable at low-tide. Another Scottish Knight who couldn’t make up his mind which side he was on was Sir Richard Lundie. He had joined the English after the capitulation at Irvine and, on the day of the battle, had astutely offered to lead an advance force of five hundred Knights and a small body of infantry over the ‘Ford of Drip’, to thus protect the main army whilst it crossed Stirling Bridge. Lundie is quoted as stating, “My Lords, if we go on to the bridge we are dead men.” He was ignored, either on the grounds that it was unwise to divide the forces or because of English arrogance. It was probably the latter and the Treasurer, Hugh de Cressingham, was the major culprit. In an officious, foot stamping temper, Cressingham demanded that de Warrene not drag out the business any longer and “waste out King’s revenues for nothing.” Surrey responded to his entreaty, “advance and carry out our duty as we are bound to do,” by ordering, “Let us attack forthwith; o’er the Forth!”
The main problem of the English was that they could cross the bridge only a couple of Knights at a time. Amongst the notable figures that made it across were Cressingham, Sir Richard de Waldegrave, the constable of Stirling, and the Yorkshireman, Sir Marmaduke Thweng. Significantly, as the ‘Chronicle of Hemingburgh’ put it, Wallace and Moray were disciplined enough to wait until “as many of the enemy had come over as they believed they could overcome.” They seemed to have learned from the indiscipline of Dunbar. At eleven o’clock, after several hundred Knights, around half of the infantry and all three hundred of de Warrene’s archers had crossed, the infinitely patient William Wallace gave the signal to attack; the single blast of a horn. The Scots spearmen came down from the high ground and smashed into the English vanguard. The ferocity and speed of the attack drove the infantry and archers towards the loop of the Forth, southeast of the causeway and the bridge. The majority were cut to pieces, including the armored Knights on their heavy horses as they floundered in the marshy ground either side of the causeway. Some attempted to throw off their armour and swim the river, but few made it. In an hour, the slaughter was complete. Five thousand foot soldiers, the Welsh archers and over one hundred Knights had been either killed or drowned attempting to escape, whilst their comrades to the south had been powerless to help.
Sir Marmaduke Thweng was one of the fortunate ones. He managed to fight his way through the thicket of spears back across the bridge. Neither he nor Surrey hung around after that. Surrey had the bridge destroyed and took off for Berwick and the south, with his tail between his legs. The Battle of Stirling Bridge was the first major Scottish victory in the Wars of Independence. Its place in history is secure as it shattered the myth of English invincibility and placed Scotland back under native control. Several comments deserve to be made about the aftermath of the battle. Amongst the dead lay the portly Cressingham. Legend has it that his body was flayed and from his skin a baldric – a wide, ornamented belt worn over the shoulder to support a sword – was fashioned for Wallace. The Scots suffered some casualties, but none who was mourned more than de Moray. He was mortally wounded during the battle and died some months later. After the battle, Sir Richard Lundie changed sides once again and was with Wallace the following year at the Battle of Falkirk. Those other two Scots of dubious character, James, the High Steward of Scotland, and Malcolm, the Earl of Lennox, having observed the carnage to the north of Stirling Bridge, surreptitiously withdrew and afterwards salved their consciences by bravely attacking the English baggage train and killing some cooks and bottle washers. And finally, the site of the bridge has since been identified by archaeologists. It has been designated as a historic monument by Historic Scotland.