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Scotland Magazine Issue 34
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The battle of Stirling Bridge
James Irvine Robertson describes the battle of Stirling Bridge and Wallace's legendary defeat over the English
One of the problems about early Scottish history is the lack of sources. Edward I deliberately removed and destroyed most of the records that existed before the 14th century. Those that survived were taken by Oliver Cromwell and, at the Restoration, the ships carrying them back north sank.
Thus the activities of William Wallace are very difficult to tease out of myth. John Barbour, perhaps the earliest Scots historian, wrote his poem The Brus in 1360, and he managed to avoid mentioning Wallace at all.
Andrew Wytoun said ‘Hym worthyed a gret buke to wryte’ but he did not write it, and Blind Harry was a propagandist two centuries later for whom accuracy was not an issue.
But if Scots sources do not help, the English ones, through a fog of bile, are rather better. The chronicles of Walter de Heminburgh are the fairest, although still calling Wallace a public robber, one of his kinder epithets. He nevertheless provides the best account of the Battle of Stirling Bridge.
The earliest map of Scotland gives the country an extraordinary wasp waist with the sea being separated by only the tiniest isthmus at Stirling. This was indeed the case in prehistory, but by the 13th century the water had receded to leave impenetrable bogs, which, as far as access between north and south of the country was concerned, made matters even more difficult. Only at Stirling were there fords across the River Forth to access a firm route north, and there was certainly a bridge there by 1211, less than a hundred yards upstream from the existing Old Bridge built between 1400-1415. Controlling and dominating the crossing here therefore was the great castle.
William Wallace had been leading a guerrilla force against the English since 1296 when Edward I deposed King John Baliol and occupied Scotland with his army. But he was considered a commoner and had no support from the aristocracy,many of whom were of Norman origin and undecided as to whether they were English or Scots.
Andrew Murray of Moravia, eldest son of the greatest baron in the north east of Scotland, had been leading an increasingly successful campaign against the occupiers.
Wallace joined forces with him and the two charismatic men shared leadership of the resulting Scots army. Murray therefore may have been the tactical genius behind the battle.
In March 1296, a party of Scots raided south of the border. King Edward retaliated by sending north 50,000 men under the Earl of Surrey as Royal Lieutenant, and Hugh Cressingham as his Treasurer. On April 27 they took Berwick, slaughtered its inhabitants, and rumbled on. They beat a Scots army at Dunbar, killing many nobles, and reached the English-held castle at Stirling in early September.
The Earl of Surrey knew that Wallace and Murray were just north of the river. Indeed, he had a conference with the Earl of Lennox and the Steward of Scotland on the subject; they had not chosen sides. Surrey decided to cross the bridge with his entirearmy.
The Scots, some 10,000 men, had arrived from Dundee earlier in the month, and were determined to stop the English at this vital constriction point. Murray and Wallace knew the country, and had plenty of time to prepare their plan of battle. They concealed their men behind Abbey Craig, where the Wallace Monument now stands, a mile north of the bridge.
On the morning of September 11, 1,000 Welsh foot soldiers made the crossing, but returned because the Earl of Surrey was still asleep in his camp. An hour later he awoke, proceeded to the bridge and conferred with his knights. A couple of friars were despatched to offer surrender to the enemy.
Wallace met them and responded: ‘We are not come here to sue for peace, but prepared for battle to avenge our wrongs and liberate our country. Let them come as they please.
They will find us prepared to meet them even to their beards.’ An insolent message, wrote the English chronicler, but one that reads very well down the centuries.
Sir Richard Lundin, one of the many Scots on the side of the English, saw the danger of a ludicrous tactical blunder, pointing out that the troops could only cross the bridge two abreast. He suggested he took a force to ford the river about a mile upstream to outflank the enemy and protect the crossing. His advice was ignored.
The Scots then watched as the Welsh recrossed the bridge, followed by Cressingham and the English cavalry carrying the Royal standard under Sir Marmaduke Twenge.
The bridge lay on the side of one of those boggy meanders of the Forth that constricted it to less than 300 yards wide. The English regrouped on the 30 acres in the heart of the ox-bow south of the bridge. When, perhaps some 10,000 of the enemy had crossed, the Scots pounced. A strong force seized the bridgehead and the rest of the army charged into the English trapped inside the river’s meander. Sir Marmaduke and a few followers managed to carve their way through the Scots schiltrons, but few were so lucky.
At the suggestion of Lundin, Surrey sent a rescue party to the ford, but the tide had come in. There was no longer a crossing there.
He could only watch from the opposite riverbank as the flower of his army was annihilated, thousands killed by sword and spear and thousands drowned as they tried to swim across the Forth. Then he turned and fled for his life.
Lennox and the Steward then committed their forces to harry the retreating English.
The Scots chased the defeated army back into northern England where they burned 715 villages with much slaughter.
Legend says that the wooden bridge was cut in half by John Wright to prevent the English retreat, but it must have been intact when Sir Marmaduke fought his way back.
We are also informed that Cressingham was killed and that his skin removed and tanned to make, amongst other souvenirs, a sword belt for Wallace.
Murray was the only notable Scots casualty. He was wounded and died a few months later. His loss cost Wallace his only unequivocal supporter amongst the ruling class, and one who might have brought others like him to fight under his leadership.
This contributed to Scotland’s divided command, and the crushing defeat at Falkirk less than two years later.
William Wallace was betrayed by John of Menteith in 1304 and handed over to King Edward for his brutal execution. By then he was seen by the Scots nobility almost as a medieval equivalent to Che Guevara. It is interesting to note that far from being the subject of universal opprobrium, Sir John Menteith’s signature was solicited for the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320.