The Battle of Falkirk took place on the 22nd of July, 1298, between the English army of King Edward I and that of the Scots under the leadership of Sir William Wallace.
William Wallace fought only two real full scale battles against the English invaders of late 13th Century Scotland. The first was in 1296 at Stirling Bridge and the other took place almost two years later on St. Magdalen’s day, the 22nd of July, 1298. Wallace won the first quite handsomely, but lost the rematch. That made the score in competitive, full-scale internationals, one-each between Wallace and the English and his personal record against the ‘Hammer of the Scots’, Edward Plantagenet, was “played one, lost one”. Falkirk was the beginning of the end for Wallace as he was forced to flee after the battle and on his return, he never achieved anything like his earlier successes, before ultimately being betrayed and brutally executed as anyone who has seen the movie ‘Braveheart’ can graphically recall. It was left to Robert the Bruce, in one way or another, to pick up from where Wallace left.
Wallace began life as the second of three sons of Sir Malcolm Wallace, who was styled ‘of Auchenbothie and Ellerslie’ and whose lands were near Kilmarnock in Ayrshire. He did not come from the Renfrewshire town of Elderslie, much as that burgh, for the sake of its tourism, would like to have us believe, nor was he born at Riccarton Castle. William was most likely born in either 1272 or 1273 and through his lineage, like Robert the Bruce, he was of Norman descent. His antecedents surely came to Britain with William the Conqueror and his progenitor in Scotland was a vassal of Walter Fiztalan, the Steward of David I, whose line later evolved into that of Stewart and Stuart, Royalty at bay. So a Ricardus Wallensis gave his name to what is now Riccarton and a couple of generations later, the family was known as Walense or Waleys. The next generation produced William’s father, who married a daughter of Sir Ranald de Craufurd, hereditary Sheriff of Ayr, and which added Anglo-Danish roots to William’s DNA.
Whatever his heritage, by 1298 Wallace was as patriotically Scots as it’s possible to be. Two years previously, he and Sir Andrew de Moray had routed the English, under Sir John de Warenne, 7th Earl of Surrey, in the battle known as Stirling Bridge. That act of rebellion was prompted by Edward Plantagenet’s defeat and capture of the Scottish King, John Balliol, and the subsequent occupation and oppression of the Scots by English might. Wallace was, in fact, fighting for his captive King and the freedom of Scotland, attempting “through battle” to free the Scots “from the tyranny of the English.” However, he had far less resources at his disposal than his enemy did. As a consequence, Wallace’s tactics evolved into an early form of guerilla warfare, including the deliberate devastation of the countryside and crops, a ‘scorched earth’ policy ahead of the pending harvest, in order to deprive the English army of sustenance. That forced the English to rely on supply ships for replenishment, whilst Edward’s veteran army, brought back from France for the express purpose of destroying the Scots ‘raggle taggle’ army, marched forth, seeking confrontation.
Wallace’s tactics had an affect on Edward’s army as it became hungrier and more retched and demoralised with each passing day. There was a mutiny by the Welsh archers and, far from realising his goal of reaching the strategically placed Stirling Castle, it is conceivable that Edward thought of turning back to regroup. However, when told of Wallace being in the vicinity, he rallied with his customary belligerence and pronounced, “I will meet them this day.” Though vastly outnumbered, Wallace had little alternative other than face Edward I in open battle. He wasn’t to know of any doubt in Edward’s mind and when pressed by the English approach, determined to stand his ground. He chose well in the circumstances, despite the outcome, which didn’t derive from any disadvantage in that regard. The terrain that the English would have to negotiate, and behind which Wallace placed his army, was an area of marshy ground known as ‘Mungal Bog’. That served him well in affording some protection from headlong frontal assault by the English cavalry and the woods to his rear provided a similar security.
Wallace is rightly credited with the invention of the ‘Schiltron’, which was later employed with tremendous success by the Flemish at Courtrai and again by Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn. Those were formed of three ranks of spearmen, each wielding a twelve foot long spear. The front row of a ‘Schiltron’ knelt, whilst the centre rank stood aligned to the right shoulder of the man in front, with the rear rank one step back and left. ‘Schiltrons’ were similar to a phalanx of Greeks or Macedonians as commanded by Alexander the Great, centuries before. There were no means by which such information could have been gained by Wallace at the end of the 13th Century, therefore, he should at least be given credit for their ‘reinvention’. Lined up and waiting for the English advance, Wallace made a short, but famous speech, stating simply, “I haif brocht ye to the ring, now hop gif ye can!”
Initially, the battle went well for the home side as the English in their eagerness rushed into disjointed flanking attacks on both wings of the massed Scots ranks. Many English horses perished on the spears of Wallace’s famous ‘Schiltrons’, which were arranged in three or maybe four divisions, in what was essentially a defensive formation. When the cavalry was able to attack from all sides, having circumnavigated the bog, still the ‘Schiltrons’ held out and Edward was forced to recall his impatient Knights. No novice in the art of war, ‘Longshanks’ had his own ‘secret weapon’ – his Welsh and Lancastrian archers. Much has been written about the chaos and slaughter wrought by Edward’s longbowmen that day, however, the key moment, which left Wallace’s ‘Schiltrons’ exposed was the withdrawal from the field of what little Scots cavalry there was. I’d say that one act of desertion, which John ‘the Red’ Comyn significantly failed to halt and which left the Welsh bowmen with a free ‘go’ at the Scots, made all the difference. With some form of protection afforded by the Lords of Ignobility, who could at least have threatened the enemy archers, a different outcome could have been the result.
Defeat for the Scots did result as Wallace’s archers were cut down by the regrouped English horse and his cruelly exposed spearmen were decimated by the Lancastrian longshafts. Edward took the field with some 12,500 infantry, amongst which count his archers, and 2,500 cavalry. In contrast, outnumbered over two-to-one, Wallace had a mere 5,000 infantry and around 1,000 mostly treacherous horsemen. However, Edward didn’t get off lightly as the total killed on the English side numbered about the same as the Scots’, which was about 2,000. Indeed, if you were to look at the English Knights who fell that day, one might say Edward suffered the more grievous loss. Falkirk was also the beginning of the end for Edward’s ambitions in Scotland.