Lanark's statue of William Wallace

Sir William Wallace
of
Ellerslie

(AD1272 - AD1305)

Wallace coat of arms

"from Outlaw to Guardian of Scotland"


Stirling Bridge

Stirling Castle               Stirling, the gateway to the north, and the key to this gateway was a narrow wooden bridge that spanned the river Forth. This strategically important town was watched over by a castle that was perched on a lofty crag that towered above the plain of the Forth valley.

              10 September 1297, from his vantage-point on the Ochil Hills, William Wallace watched John de Warenne and his army advanced from the south, onto the town of Stirling. As they rendezvoused with the castle's garrison and its constable, Sir Richard de Waldegrave.

1297 map of Stirling

A scene from the film - Braveheart               John de Warenne had amassed a formidable army, totalling a thousand heavy cavalry and fifty thousand foot soldiers. With a formidable reputation to match as they were the most seasoned warriors of the time, the most experienced army in Europe, and more importantly they were an army that never known defeat. Morale was high, as the rank and file were confident of the generalship of their commanders, and the Scottish rebels were rated as nothing but a mere bunch of amateurs. Since the Scots had displayed poor field craft and a general lack of discipline in Dunbar; disunity among their leaders, so evident at Irvine; and the lack of support from the nobles. As most of the Scottish nobles had been tamed: they were either serving with King Edward I in Flanders, imprisoned, or hamstrung by hostages.

A scene from the film - Braveheart               In comparison William Wallace had ten thousand men, and Andrew de Moray had brought six thousand men, including one hundred and fifty armed cavalry. The rebels were lightly armed, poorly trained, and with a total of sixteen thousand men they were out-numbered by 3:1. But they did have an unquenchable fighting spirit, as what they lacked in experience it made up in motivation. With its ranks motivated mainly by a sense of patriotism, as they were prepared to fight and even die, rather than to endure the tyranny of English occupation a day longer.

              William Wallace decided to make his stance on the opposite bank of the river Forth, occupying the high ground, on the slopes of Ochil Hills, thus forcing the English to fight uphill. But firstly John de Warenne had to navigate the river Forth, and the only effective means was a wooden bridge, as the fords at Cambuskenneth and Kildean were only passable at low-tide. But the wooden bridge was narrow, as it restricted riders to cross at most two abreast. Whilst the causeway on the far side of the bridge was not wider, and on either side of the causeway the ground was much too soft and swampy for the heavy cavalry to operate. And once across the narrow wooden bridge the English would have no means of a quick escape, whilst the rebels, with the Ochil Hills as a backdrop, had the opportunity to melt away into the hills.

              Two - three days earlier, some of the Scottish nobles, including James the Steward and the Earl of Lennox, caught up with John de Warenne, as he made his way to Stirling. For the nobles offered to parley with the rebels to prevent unnecessary bloodshed, a scene all too reminiscent of the incident at Irvine. But taking a charitable view the nobles were probably just gathering intelligence about Warenne forces. Then on the 10 September 1297, the nobles returned with the news that William Wallace refused to yield, and as an act of good faith the nobles promised to contribute sixty men to fight for the English cause.

              By the morning of 11 September 1297, James the Steward and the Earl of Lennox dutifully returned, but only with a handful of men, well short on the numbers originally promised. Their story was that they were unable to persuade any more of the rebel's rank and file to deflect.

              John de Warenne was now a little apprehensive about the situation, as it was becoming clear that the rebels were in the mood for a fight. And from his vantage point he saw that the rebels commanded the high ground, on the slopes of Ochil Hill, thereby placing the rebels in an unassailable position. Warenne also he noted that from their current position the rebels would threaten the left flank of any force that crossed the river and advanced along the causeway. While the swampy ground on either side of the causeway would be useless for the horses to operate in and that narrow bridge would prove to be a bottleneck. Finally Warenne would have thought, if only he could entice the rebels off the high ground and onto the plains north of Stirling, near the hamlet of Cornton, where they would become easy prey for the heavy cavalry.

              In accordance to military protocol, John de Warenne offered the rebels the opportunity to surrender before the armies engaged in battle. Therefore Warenne sent two Dominican friars across the bridge and up the causeway to invite William Wallace to accept the King's peace, and a promise of remission for past deeds.

              William Wallace rebutted John de Warenne's offer and submitted a counter-offer of his own:

'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.'

              The expression on the faces of the English commanders said it all, as they stood there flabbergasted by Wallace's defiant reply. Far from being intimidated, William Wallace openly challenged them to do their worst. This and the inherently strong defensive position of the rebels unnerved the English, and spread dissension among its ranks. With one group urging John de Warenne to call the outlaw's bluff, whilst the other group urged caution. John de Warenne hastily convened a war council with his field commanders, to resolve the matter.

              One of the knights who addressed the war council was none other than Sir Richard Lundie, a Scot who deflected to the English at Irvine:

'My lords, if we go on to the bridge we are dead men; for we cannot cross it except two by two, and the enemy are on our flank, and can come down on us as they will, all in one front. But there is a ford not far from here, where we can cross sixty at a time. Let me now therefore have five hundred knights and a small body of infantry, and we will get round the enemy on the rear and crush them; and meanwhile you, my lord Earl, and the others who are with you, will cross the bridge in perfect safety.'

              The war council rejected Sir Richard Lundie proposal, on the grounds that it was unwise to divide the forces. It was probably due to their arrogance, and the general feeling of mistrust that some of the war council members had for the turncoat, mindful of the earlier actions of James the Steward and the Earl of Lennox. But there were a few members of the war council that agreed in principle with Sir Richard Lundie's proposal, and continued to staunchly argue in favour of Lundie's proposal with their fellow war council members. It was at this stage that things degenerated into chaos, with everyone squabbling with their neighbour.

              At this point Hugh Cressingham stood up and shouted down the babble, and then he continued to address the members' of the war council:

 

 'There is no point in dragging out this business any longer, and wasting our King's revenues for nothing. Let us advance and carry out our duty as we are bound to do.'

               John de Warenne resented Cressingham's outburst, as it clearly painted him as a ditherer. This and the infighting between his field commanders finally pressurised John de Warenne into giving the order for his army to cross the bridge and to go in for the kill.

              By now it was mid-morning, and Sir Marmaduke de Thweng had rode ahead of the main column with an advance guard of heavy cavalry to secure the northern perimeter of the causeway and provide cover for the English advance. But just as Sir Richard Lundie had earlier pointed out, the wooden bridge was indeed narrow, allowing riders to cross at no more than two abreast, and only with great care and difficulty.

              Just under half a mile away, on the slopes of Ochil Hills, the rebels watched the English as they slowly negotiated the narrow wooden bridge. It must had been an awe inspiring sight, with the standard-bearers carrying the colours of King Edward I, and the Earl of Surrey, the knights with their great warhorses, the guidons, pennants and oriflammes of the leading knights and barons, together with all the pageantry and panoply of medieval warfare. Among the notable figures that made it across were Hugh Cressingham, Sir Robert de Somerville and Sir Richard de Waldegrave (the constable of Stirling).

              The tension mounted as more and more English troops crossed over the wooden bridge and poured on to the marshy plain. Yet as a testament to the discipline instilled by Andrew de Moray and William Wallace, the rebel army held their nerve, resisting the temptation to madly hurl themselves down the slopes to attack the English troops, just as they had done at Dunbar in 1296.

              From the summit of Abbey Craig, William Wallace surveys the advance of the English, as he carefully weighs up the exact moment to launch his attack. Since if he launched the attack too soon, his rebel army would stand a much better chance in defeating the smaller English force which had managed to cross the bridge. But it would have left the main division of Warenne's army still intact, and in a position to launch a counter-attack. On the other hand if he waited until Warenne's entire army had crossed, his lightly armed rebel army would be outnumbered by 3:1 and overwhelmed.

A scene from the film - Braveheart               At eleven o'clock, William Wallace gave the signal to attack by a single blast of the horn. The rebels had been eagerly waiting for this moment, charged en masse, brandishing their spears and swords, and yelling 'On them! On them! On them!'. Gathering momentum as they ran down the slopes, with their spears at the level, straight into the English ranks.

              A detachment of rebels broke away from the main force, hell bent on securing the bridgehead and thereby closing the trap, as they hacked and stabbed their way to the bridge. This caused a stampede on the bridge, as the English troops suddenly found themselves unable to proceed forward, but were still being pressed hard by those coming up behind. Many of them fell or jumped into the river and were drowned in its deep waters, weighed down by their armour and equipment.

A scene from the film - Braveheart               While the main rebel force ripped through the English lines, sending a wave of panic through its ranks. Those who tried to escape floundered with their mounts in a sea of mud and were speared to death, while the survivors were sent sprawling on to the ground only to be trampled into mud by the advancing rebels. The ferocity and speed of the rebels' attack caught the English off guard, and they were quickly driven towards the loop of the river, southeast of the causeway and the wooden bridge.

A scene from the film - Braveheart               The rebel cavalry thundered down the causeway from the north, Sir Marmaduke Thweng kept his nerve, turned his charger to face the rebels, then he gave the order to charge. His squad of heavy cavalry easily dispersed the more lightly armed rebels, but instead of giving chase Sir Marmaduke Thweng stopped and took stock of the general situation. To his horror he noted that the colours of both King Edward I's and The Earl of Surrey's had disappeared, drowned in a sea of bodies, and the rebels had secured the bridgehead, blocking his retreat.

Stirling Bridge               He paused for a while, then with the body of his nephew slung across his saddle Sir Marmaduke Thweng charged straight at the rebels, hacking and slashing a path with his great broad sword to the bridgehead. And as soon as Sir Marmaduke Thweng and his squad had recrossed the river to safety, the order was given to destroy the bridge.

              The three hundred strong detachment of Welsh archers tried to offer some resistance, but were jostled by their English colleagues scramble to evade the wrath of the rebels, with no room to manoeuvre the archers were swiftly dispatched. Within the chaos and mayhem of the English ranks, its foot soldiers were being trampled to death, by the hooves of their own cavalry, or by their own colleagues, and those knights who were thrown off their mounts also suffered a similar fate. Others jumped or fell into the river, and were drowned, but a few managed to divest themselves of their armour and swim the river to safety.

A scene from the film - Braveheart               From his vantage point on the south bank of the river, John de Warenne watched aghast as the remains of his vanguard were corralled and then systematically butchered by the rebels, as they worked themselves into a killing frenzy. For he was reduced to a mere helpless observer, as he had committed all of his archers in the vanguard, otherwise he could have been able to direct deadly fire across the river. And he couldn't even mobilise his remaining troops to their aid, as he had already severed the only lines of communication with his vanguard.

              By 12 o'clock, the battle was all but over, but the mopping-up operation would have taken much longer, as the rebels typically took no prisoners. At a single stroke the rebels wiped out almost all of the one hundred heavy cavalry, and five thousand foot soldiers, including three hundred Welsh archers, who had crossed the bridge that day. This clearly demonstrated that an army of 'common men' with the discipline, the courage to fight and die for their country, were able to shatter the myth of English invincibility.

              The rebel losses were negligible, but Andrew de Moray was seriously wounded, and died from his injuries several weeks later. Andrew de Moray's death marked a turning point in William Wallace's future, since de Moray's family connections would have lent Wallace the necessary credentials to have ensured a firm commitment to his cause by others in the Scottish nobility. As they continued to view Wallace as a commoner, an outlaw, and a major threat to their feudal grip of power. They were the very members of the upper class whose disgraceful behaviour was graphically illustrated at Irvine when they surrendered without even striking a single blow in anger, as they were more interested in their own self-preservation rather than in any conflict. And now they were to hinder and ultimately undo Wallace's efforts to govern Scotland.

              John de Warenne had seen enough and gave the order for a hasty evacuation, pausing long enough to appoint his kinsman, Sir William Fitz-Warine, the new constable of Stirling, and with the promise that he would return within ten weeks. Mounting his horse, Warenne led his remaining men south with due haste, not pausing until they had reached the safety of England.

              Once the outcome of the battle was certain, those like James the Steward and the Earl of Lennox, who were waiting on the sidelines, now openly supported the rebels. And to demonstrate their allegiance, James the Steward and the Earl of Lennox led a squadron of their vassals from a hidden location in Torwood, to harass the retreating English army, cutting down the stragglers and attacking the baggage trains.

              As soon as the tide had ebbed sufficiently the rebel cavalry crossed the river at Abbey Ford, near Cambuskenneth. The rebels then stalked and harassed the retreating English army through Torwood…, Haddington…, seizing their pack animals and repeatedly attacking them from the rear, but finally they broke off their chase at Belton, near Dunbar.

              William Wallace then returned to Stirling, whilst a token force under the command of Henry de Halburton continued to harass a now demoralised English army to as far as Berwick. Where de Halburton found the town abandoned by its garrison, but the Earl of March, a fanatical Anglophile, and a few of his followers occupied its castle and refused to surrender. With neither the manpower nor the resources for a siege Henry de Halburton was satisfied with just occupying the town, and he remained there with his men until Wallace's invasion of England (in 18 October 1297).

              After the battle the rebels systematically stripped the dead of their armour and weapons, where they came across the body of Hugh Cressingham, the much hated Treasurer of Scotland. Not content in stripping the corpse of its armour and clothing, the rebels flayed and mutilated him, and as a token of their hatred towards the man they distributed his skin among themselves. For which the chronicle of Lanercost Priory reported that the rebels dried and cured Cressingham's hide and 'of his skin William Wallace caused a broad strip to be taken from his head to the heel, to make therewith a baldric for his sword'.

              Ironically on 12 September 1297, the Prince of Wales, regent during his father's absence, sent a dispatch to John de Warenne, ordering him to remain in Scotland till the rebellion had been quashed. But by the time the dispatch finally caught up with Warenne he was two hundred miles south in York.

              After a brief siege, the garrison at Stirling Castle capitulated, apparently they had no faith in John de Warenne's promise of returning. Among those captured and later incarcerated in Dumbarton Castle were Sir William Fitz-Warine and his lieutenant, Sir Marmaduke de Thweng. But their releases were eventually secured after negotiations in 7 April 1299 culminated in the exchange for some Scottish prisoners.

              William Wallace now concentrated on clearing out the remaining pockets of English resistance, he remained in Stirling long enough to reorganise his rebel forces before returning to the siege of Dundee. But with the news of John de Warenne's defeat filtering through and of William Wallace's return, the English garrison at Dundee gradually lost their will to fight and surrendered, yielding a vast armoury of weapons and booty.

              During about this time a council meeting was held at Perth by those members of Scottish nobility who supported William Wallace and elected him and Andrew de Moray the Guardians of Scotland in the name of King John Balliol. But by the 7 November 1297 Andrew de Moray's name disappeared from all official documents relating from that period, due to his untimely death from the injuries he sustained at the battle of Stirling Bridge.

              Continuing with his mopping up operation William Wallace attacked and captured Cupar Castle, killing its entire garrison of two hundred men in the process. By now the English were hastily abandoning their positions and retreating south, except for the garrisons of Edinburgh, Dunbar, Roxburgh and Berwick who were determined to stand firm. But by the third week of October 1297 not a single English soldier remained on Scottish soil.

              As the English retreated they employed a scorched earth policy, farms were burned, crops destroyed, and livestock slaughtered. Combined with a poor harvest many Scots by now were at a point of starvation, and with onset of winter a decision had to be made.

              18 October 1297, to alleviate the mounting food crisis William Wallace made the decision to invade England, for its northern counties had abundant supplies of food and livestock, and to demonstrate that Scotland was a force to be reckon with. He assembled the Scottish army on Roslin Moor and then marched south, crossing the river Tweed into Northumberland…

              …About Christmas 1297, William Wallace recrossed the river Tweed, after he had meticulously ravaged the northern counties of County Durham, Cumbria and Northumbria as he pleased, and everything of value was removed and carted across the border.

A scene from the film - Braveheart               It was about this time that William Wallace was knighted, possibly by the 2nd Earl of Carrick, Robert Bruce (the future King of Scotland)....


Bibliography

Bold, Alan, Robert the Bruce, Pitkin Pictorials, Andover, 1994.

Carruth, J.A., Heroic: Wallace and Bruce, Jarrold Publishing, Norwich, 1997.

Gibson, Mel, Braveheart, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 1995.

Gray, D.J., William Wallace: The King's Enemy, Robert Hale Limited, London, 1995.

MacKay, James, William Wallace: Braveheart, Mainstream Publishing Company Ltd., Edinburgh, 1997.


Page 1-Background
Page 2-The Outlaw
Page 3-Toom Tabard
Page 4-Guerrilla Leader
Page 5-Rebel Commander
Previous Page Stirling Bridge *

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View from Ochil Hills View from the Wallace Monument View from Gowan Hill