Scotland's History Articles The Battle of Stirling Bridge, 1297

The Battle of Stirling Bridge, 1297

Plaque commemorating Stirling Bridge

"For this reason the Scots adopted a stout heart at the instigation of William Wallace, who taught them to fight, so that those whom the English nation held as living captives might be made renewed Scots in their own homeland,... Hence in the year one thousand three hundred less three time one the Scots vanquished the English, whom they put into mourning for death, as the bridge bears witness, where the great battle is recorded, which lies beyond Stirling on the River Forth." Poem in Bower's Scotichronicon on the Battle of Stirling Bridge

John de Warenne marches north with a huge force of cavalry and infantry. Earl of Surrey, Govenor in Scotland for Edward I of England, and spearhead of his imperial ambitions north of the border, he is confident of victory, whether by battle or negotiation. It has been four months since the rising of William Wallace and Andrew Murray began.

Near Stirling Castle he arrives at a narrow, wooden bridge which crosses The River Forth. There, on the opposite bank is Wallace and Murray's army. Warenne delays his crossing for several days to allow for negotiations, cocksure that the Scots will choose peace over war in the light of recent English victories and their obvious military superiority. He is surprised by their refusal to surrender and on the 11th September decides to force the crossing.

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The Scots were encamped on the Abbey Craig, where the National Wallace Monument stands today. Their army was predominantly infantry armed with long spears, and was drawn mainly from the "lesser" ranks of society - not because the Scots nobles completely resisted Wallace, but because many of them were being held captive in England.

From the base of Abbey Craig a causeway stretched for a mile across The River Forth's flood plain (roughly in line with the present day road between The Craig and the river). At the end of the causeway stood the bridge (lying 180 yards upstream from the 15th century stone that still crosses the river today).

It was wide enough to pass with only two horsemen abreast and the entire English army would have taken several hours to cross, after which they would have to enter a confined narrow loop in the river, leaving their flank dangerously exposed to attack. All this before they were even ready to give battle.

At dawn the English and Welsh infantry start to cross only to be recalled due to the fact that their leader, Warenne, has overslept. Again they cross the bridge and again they are recalled: as Warenne believes the Scots might finally negotiate. Two Dominican friars are sent to Wallace to acquire his surrender and return shortly afterwards with William Wallace's first recorded speech: "Tell your commander that we are not here to make peace but to do battle, defend ourselves and liberate our kingdom. Let them come on, and we shall prove this in their very beards."

Warenne decides to advance. He is advised to send a cavalry force upstream to The Ford of Drip in order to cover the infantry's crossing, however Edward's treasurer, Hugh de Cressingham, intervenes, pointing out that too much of the king's money has already been wasted and insisting that they cross at once to bring the campaign to a swift end.

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Wallace and Murray wait until more than half the English army has crossed the bridge before springing their trap. The Scots spearmen rush down the causeway. Those on the right flank force their way along the river bank to the north end of the bridge, cutting off any hope of escape.

Trapped in a confined space with the river to their backs the English heavy cavalry is virtually useless. Only one group of English knights, under Sir Marmaduke Tweng, succeed in cutting their way back to the bridge. After they have crossed, Warenne, who has wisely stayed put, has the bridge destroyed and flees to Berwick.

Over half the English army is left to its fate on the Scots side of the river. Those that can swim do so, the rest (over 100 men-at-arms and 5,000 infantry) are inevitably massacred. Many of them are Welsh, but among them is Hugh de Cressingham, Edward's hated tax collector, who had crossed first.

On the Scots side, Andrew Murray is fatally wounded. He dies two months later and is buried at Fortrose Cathedral on Black Isle, north of Inverness.

Victory brings the collapse of English occupation. Wallace, now Guardian of Scotland, goes on to devastate the north of England in the hope of forcing Edward to acknowledge defeat. Records show that 715 villages are burnt and many helpless people are no doubt slain. The cycle of brutality, started by Edward at Berwick, rolls remorselessly on.

Until 1297 the heavily armed and mounted knight had been an invincible force on the battlefield. Stirling Bridge was the first battle in Europe to see a common army of spearmen defeat a feudal host. Only five years later a host of French knights were to go down to similarly-armed Flemish townsmen at The Battle of Courtrai.

Stirling Bridge also destroyed the myth of English invincibility. The Scots had not defeated a major English army since the Dark Ages, but this victory seems to have strengthened their will to resist Edward I. However, the humiliation of losing to lowly Scots only strengthened Edward's determination: under a year later Wallace's Scots Army was defeated at The Battle of Falkirk.

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