On This Day: William Wallace Triumphs At Stirling
Mel Gibson's Braveheart may have made William Wallace a household name, but the real Wallace, and the battle he won against King Edward I's forces, were nothing like their movie counterparts.
There were no kilts, there was no blue face paint, and there was no open field with feisty, ramshackle units of Scottish rebels flashing bare bottoms defiantly at their English oppressors.
Instead, there was a bridge and a pair of very cunning Scottish commanders lying in wait for the perfect moment to unleash their concealed army.
It wasn't 'The Battle of Stirling' so much as "The Battle of Stirling Bridge", still standing in stone today (it was wood during Wallace's time). Picture: Bloodworx
That army was hidden within the woods of Abbey Craig, a hill overlooking the river Forth spanned by Stirling Bridge.
Wallace, a nobleman who'd refused a call to service by England's King Edward I, had chosen to help whip up a rebellion instead, and joined forces with Andrew Murray (or Moray), another nobleman who'd fought, been captured by, and then escaped from the English.
The two men had around 180 cavalrymen and 6,400 infantrymen, including bowmen for protection, under their command.
These soldiers were every bit as well organised as the English forces that would soon deploy in front on them on the morning of September 11th, 1297.
Stirling Castle, on top of the hill, as it is today. English forces formed up at the base of the hill before preparing to cross
The infantry was organised into 'schiltrons', a body of troops formed into what was effectively a phalanx, armed with pikes or spears.
A quaternion had four men under his command, making up, with him, a five-man squad. Two of these units were commanded by a decurion, roughly the equivalent of a 'section' today.
Men were further designated into company-sized units of 100 men, and regimental groups of 1,000 men were commanded by a chiliarch.
Abbey Craig, from where the Scots formed up and attacked, is topped by the Wallace monument today, upon which is mounted a statue of Wallace (picture: Karel), which does not remotely resemble Mel Gibson..
For their part, the English forces were over-confident and disorganised.
A full-blown war between England and Scotland had begun the year before, but Edward I, convinced he'd crushed the Scots, had left.
Muttering 'it's a relief to be rid of s**t', he headed south again to deal with more pressing matters related to the crusades and his lands in southern France.
Edward I, 'Longshanks' (left), had beaten the Welsh years before, imposing military dominance through the building of castles, and political dominance by making the first son of England's ruling monarch the 'Prince of Wales'. Subsequently, many of the foot soldiers fighting against the Scots at Stirling were Welsh - ironically, Wallace (right) means 'Welshman'
John de Warene, the Earl of Surrey, and Sir Hugh Cressingham, the Treasurer of Scotland, were the king's representatives left at Stirling.
The town had a castle cresting a hill that was opposite the Scottish rebels, who were now encamped inside the woods on Abbey Craig.
Stirling was strategically vital - the River Forth separated northern and southern Scotland, and any invasion of the north would need to start here.
In his book on Wallace's rebellion, however, author Pete Armstrong suggests that Cressingham may not have been militarily astute enough to fully appreciate this.
The battlefield as seen from around Stirling Castle. Abbey Craig, where the Scots encamped, is opposite. Picture: Kim Traynor
As treasurer, Cressingham had a lot more troops under his command, but he'd sent a large number away, deeming them unnecessary and too expensive. This left him with 350 cavalry and 6,350 infantry (including long and crossbowmen).
On the morning of the battle, he'd rejected advice to send a party to ford the river further north so that his men could flank the Scots, who were now visibly assembling opposite, below Abbey Craig.
He may have been concerned that such a manoeuvre would cause the Scots to flee, and planned for a quick victory over the rebels that would curry favour with the king and advance his career.
So he chose to have all his men cross the narrow bridge and assemble into battle lines on the other side, not realising the danger posed by dividing his forces.
The Scots, using their opponents' complacency to their advantage, awaited the perfect moment to catch them off guard.
The English forces, in red, came down from Stirling Castle, crossed the bridge and began to form up on the other side. They were under full view of the Scots, in blue, who'd already assembled below Abbey Craig (map from Pete Armstrong's book)
It was a fight that had been a long time coming.
Braveheart opens with a dark prologue - Scotland, with a recently dead king, is vulnerable to England's cruel and opportunistic 'Edward the Longshanks'.
The dead king mentioned was Alexander III, who'd died not in 1280, as the film states, but in 1286, when he was flung from his horse and plunged over a cliff.
His death triggered a political crisis because there was no clear heir, and Scotland's nobles, fearing civil war, asked Edward I to arbitrate between them.
Over time, the process became less about helping Scotland find a king and more about helping Edward find a loyal deputy.
By 1292 Edward was ready to give his approval to a man he thought he could trust to be his political servant, and John Balliol was crowned king of Scotland.
But in the months and years that followed, relations soon soured between them.
Edward was perceived to have interfered with Scottish sovereignty when he intervened in a judicial matter. Balliol was perceived as traitorous when he refused to support Edward in a war with France, and then signed a defence pact with the French king.
War broke out in 1296, and Balliol was eventually captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London.
In the War of 1296 atrocities were committed on both sides. The Scots burned down a priory in Cumbria and killed 200 boys; while the English slaughtered many of the inhabitants of Berwick when Edward came north (map from Pete Armstrong's book)
The whereabouts of Wallace at this time are unknown, but, given the leadership skills he displayed at Stirling, it is very likely he'd had prior military experience.
He may have fought with Edward's forces in Wales or on the continent, and probably against them in the war of 1296.
Now, with the English king missing in action, and his delegates clumsily filing over the bridge ahead, it was the perfect moment to strike.
With a third of the English forces now over the Bridge and cut off from reinforcements, Murray and Wallace gave the order to rush them.
In an instant, more than 6,000 Scots swept down from the base of Abbey Craig and slammed into their exposed enemies.
The Scots, in blue, dashed down the slope and pushed the English forces back into the neck of the river
The schiltrons formed up, no doubt bristling like porcupines, six lines deep, with the better armoured men at the front.
Wallace and Murray likely swept down on horseback along with the rest of the Scottish cavalry, hacking at any enemy soldiers unlucky enough to be caught in the open.
Across the bridge, the remaining English forces helplessly watched as the Scots made quick work of slaughtering their comrades and forcing them into the river, where most, encumbered by heavy weapons, clothing, and armour, were drowned.
Artist's depiction of the real Battle of Stirling (plate by Angus McBride), with the Scottish 'sciltrons' in the foreground, and the ambushed English forces in the rear. Wallace is the figure in red on horseback on the left, and Murray is the mounted figure on the right
After Stirling, Edward was forced to re-engage with the war in Scotland, and Wallace suffered defeat at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298. Murray died from injuries he sustained at Stirling.
Wallace was captured in 1305 and put through a grisly execution at the Tower of London, his body 'quartered', and limbs dispatched for display in Newcastle, Berwick, Perth, and Stirling.
So the Scots were down - but they weren't out.
In 1314, another icon of Scottish history, Robert the Bruce, emerged victorious at the Battle of Bannockburn, his feat of splitting an English knight's head in two with his axe becoming as legendary as Wallace's victory at Stirling.
The Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton subsequently acknowledged an independent Scotland and its king, Robert I, as ruler.
For more about Stirling Bridge and Falkirk, see Pete Armstrong's book. For more about the Battle of Bannockburn, click here. And to learn more about military history, visit Osprey Publishing's website.