For many of us Scotland is synonymous with Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” movie. This film brought us closer to the Scottish War of Independence, and although the Stirling battle there looked different in reality than on screen, it helped us get to know the silhouette of William Wallace and the other Scottish freedom fighters. Let’s look at how well the Scots dealt with the Englishmen over the Stirling Bridge.

A short history of Scotland

The first traces of human settlements in the northern part of the British Isles are estimated to be around 5000 BC. 400 years after the birth of Christ, the Celts began to arrive on the islands and it was their customs and beliefs that shaped the cultural identity of the later Scots. The Celtic sense of tribal affiliation had a direct impact on the formation of Scottish families whose representatives for centuries did not submit to the central government, because they felt loyalty mainly towards their families and their interests.

The beginnings of the unification of the Celtic tribes of Scottish and Pictas (as their Romans called them) took place with the development of Christianity. The first Christian ruler of the northern part of the Islands is Kenneth MacAlpine, who founded the kingdom of Alba in 843. Its inhabitants have long resisted the invasions of the Anglo-Saxons, maintaining a distinct culture of the kingdom, but accepting from their neighbors some political changes – such as administrative division (county system) and justice system.

Over the course of time, in the grace of Edinburgh, mighty people from the French provinces of Northern France came into contact with each other, who, in return for the Scottish lands, gave the new king the driving units at their disposal. However, they often had double loyalty. Scotland began to be clearly divided into two regions – the southern, diverse Lowlands nationalities and the northern Highlands, where tribal division dominated.

Scotland’s troubles began with the tragedy of the Canmore family ruling there. A series of misfortunes began with the death of 35-year-old Margaret, wife of Scottish King Alexander III. Six years later their younger son died, two years later their older son and daughter. Alexander III himself died shortly afterwards, breaking his neck when he fell from a horse. The last living person from their family was the king’s granddaughter, young Margaret, who was staying at the court of the king of Norway at that time. However, she got a fever when she returned to her country and also died. Due to the lack of a legitimate ruler, the Scottish people became aware of the spectre of the Throne War.

Loss of independence

Efforts for the crown were initiated by representatives of several Scottish noble families. In order to avoid fighting between them, the King of England Edward I Plantagenet, known as Edward Longshanks, was asked to mediate. Instead of taking an arbitrage, he himself demanded homage from the Scottish nobility. Many mighty people (especially those who had lands in England or France) did not want to expose themselves to his anger and did not resist him. Edward I appointed John Balliol as the King of Scotland, his man-marionette, and he quickly promised obedience to England. Scotland thus found itself at the mercy of its southern neighbour in this tragic way.

When England began the war with France in 1294, the Scots took the opportunity to end their obedience to Edward and covenant with France. The English king quickly gathered the army and set off north to force his will on Scottish lords. They started the war with the collapse of border towns and villages, but they failed to conquer the castles in Wark and Carlisle. Meanwhile, the army of Edward I passed the Tweed River and besieged, and then bloodyly conquered the port town of Berwick . The English started marching northwards.

In April 1296 the English army besieged Dunbar Castle in Scotland. The army under the command of John Comyn, brother of the owner of the castle, was hurried by the crew with help. The English, under the command of the experienced John de Warenne, Count Surrey, came out opposite them and the two armies met on Lammermoor Hills. De Warenne, seeing the number advantage and better position of Scots, resorted to the fortel pretending to be the opposite of his own troops. Comyn’s army fell into a trap and started to chase the English, but they instantly changed the front and accepted the attack in the penal chic, stopping the impact of inert Scottish masses and allowing cavalry to complete the work of destruction. The Scottish defeat was total – many people died and a large part of their nobility was captured. Edward I knew the other mighty mighty who were in conflict with each other were not able to form any defence of the country, and he crowned himself without delay as the King of Scotland. He took the humiliation of his recent opponent as a point of honour; Scottish crown jewels were taken to London, de Warenne was appointed manager of the whole country, and Plantagenet’s return to England on the Tweed River was said to say,’ he is doing man well if he gets rid of his mockery!”.

Scotland was conquered and its people entered the English occupation. The invaders’ troops reigned over villages and towns, taxes were increased, forced recruitment of recruits to Edward’s army was permanent, and wool harvests were reclaimed. All of this caused Scottish troubles, but there was a lack of leaders among them – a large part of the nobility was closed in English dungeons, and those who were at large were afraid of opposing the English king.

Wallace leads the Scots to fight

In this difficult situation, Scotland has heard of the deeds of a poor nobleman named William Wallace. Its past is not fully known, although it is certain that it was well educated. The beginning of his fight against the invader began with an armed speech against the English garrison in Lanark. One day a few soldiers wanted to take a fish away from William, and this one, defending himself, killed one of them and injured a few. Englishmen immediately sentenced the proud nobleman to death, but he returned on the second day with his 30 companions, with the help of whom he gained an English guard and executed the death sentence as garrison commander. Wallace began partisan activities, during which he attacked English strongholds in the Forth and Tay rivers. Hunting was carried out on the English people, and especially efforts were made to catch royal officials.

Crowds of volunteers started to come to Wallace’s troops, those who wanted to throw away a yoke of captivity and return Scotland’s independence. The country was united under the orders of one leader, William Wallace.

At the beginning of 1297, the Uprising covered almost all of Scotland. By the end of the summer, the Scots had recovered most of the castles in the north of the country, and in September Wallace joined forces with the highlanders led by Andrew de Murray. Both leaders started a regular war against England.

The slaughter of Stirling

In the news of the Scottish revolt, King Edward ordered to gather forces from the northern provinces of England and to combine them with the occupational corps of de Warenne. In total, this army counted around approx. 350 heavy-armed knights, 10,000 infantry and 800 elite Welsh archers. Most of them were veterans led by experienced officers who knew the war crafts and were hardened in battle. Unfortunately, this could not be said about the Scots – the forces led by Wallace consisted mainly of volunteers – 180 light cavalry and infantry. Most of them were equipped with spears or axes and only a few had armor such as the earrings. In addition, the insurgent army did not have the support of the nobility, which mostly hid in the castles and waited for the result of the upcoming battle.

The English Army underwent a course in Stirling, the city of Central Scotland, an ideal location for future warfare. Wallace wanted to replace de Warenn’s path, and he succeeded on September 10 when both sides stood opposite each other separated by the Forth River. Scots took a position in the forests around Abbey Craig’s hill, from where they watched the enemy.

Commander of the invaders, Count de Warenne, was sure that he would quickly wrestle with the rebels. First, he sent two Dominicans to the Scottish camp, who were supposed to persuade Wallace and the company to give their homage to Edward I (They refused, of course). He also ignored the advisers’ requests to cross the ford instead of the bridge. An experienced commander completely ignored the serious danger of crossing a very narrow bridge under the opponent’s nose.

William Wallace and the rest of Scottish commanders knew how to take advantage of this opportunity. They intended to pass through the river a certain part of the English, and then attack and crush both parts of the army. The plan was supposed to be difficult – it was not possible to carry out the attack too quickly, because a large part of the de Warenne’s army would remain untouched on the other side of the shore. On the other hand, the late attack did not carry the threat of clashes with too many opponents.

In the morning of September 11, the English got a signal to start the crossing on the other bank of Forth. The tip of the barn, followed by the front guard led by the hated royal treasurer, Cressingham. When about half of the invaders crossed the river, Wallace started a storm. At first, the Scottish benches were slowly moving towards the English people, on whose side the Welsh archers released the rain of arrows. In spite of the many dead and wounded, they went further, falling with great impetus and fury on the hostile lines. At the same time Murray together with his people broke through the bridge and cut off the possibility of further crossing of the river for the defenders.

There was chaos among the English people. Many of them, instead of fighting, tried to save themselves by jumping into the water, but they died under the weight of their armour. Cressingham’s isolated units were methodically broken down and cut into a trunk by the brave Scots. The English commanding officer himself was brutally cut into pieces. The situation of the encircling soldiers of de Warenne was not even rescued by the last, desperate charge of English knights who tried to break through the bridge in the direction of the front guard. The cavalry became encircled with spears, and the knight leading the attack, named Marmaduke de Thweng, was one of the few who went out with life, holding in his hands the body of a fallen nephew.

Only a small group of enemies escaped from the Scottish hands with life. The English lost between 2.5 and 5 thousand people. Wallace’s army suffered minor losses (probably hundreds of dead), but the biggest loss was Murray’s subsequent death from wounds in the battle.

Wallace chased the remains of the army of de Warenne to the southern borders. In the news of a defeat at Stirling, most of the English garrison of occupied fortifications left their posts themselves. Taking advantage of the temporary weakness of his enemy, Wallace led Scots to the south and fooled northern England, reaching as far as Newcastle.

King Robert Bruce before the Battle of Bannockburn
Edmund Blair Leighton

William Wallace’s further struggle and death

The victorious William Wallace was declared the chief commanding officer of the Scottish army and guardian of Scotland. This cunning warrior realized that he had won the battle, but not the war. He began his efforts to support the Scottish independence issue at European courts. He wrote lots of letters to commercial guilds and tried to hire the German infantry. In the meantime, Edward I Plantagenet gathered the largest army in England’s history (over 20,000 people) and set off on Edinburgh.

Wallace chose a clever strategy to stop the invaders, aimed at fighting the guerrilla: systematic jerks of Edward’s army, destruction of food supplies and the dragging of English soldiers into ambush. When everything started to look good, a part of Scottish nobility again betrayed their country and revealed to Edward the place where their own army stood. On July 22,1298, the Falkirk Battle was fought, which ended with defeat of Scottish patriots.

The “Brave Heart” did not lay down his arms and continued the partisan fight against invaders. Then, in the years 1299-1303, he went to European courts, seeking support for the Scottish case among the rulers. After his return to the country he was betrayed, captured by the English and cruelly tortured: his hands and legs were publicly broken, his belly was cut apart, his intestines were cut and then burned. When Wallace gave up his last breath, his body was chopped and rolled out all over England.

The rest of Scottish patriots did not abandon their dreams of independence. The new King Robert Bruce was fighting the Englishmen for 20 years, in 1314 taking the victorious Battle of Bannockburn with them. Scotland’s independence was finally recognised by the rest of the countries in 1328 on the basis of the Arbroath Declaration to the Pope:

We are not fighting for honour, neither for wealth nor for glory, but for freedom from which no real man can give up without his life.

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