Where is my Navy? Where are my supplies? Where, in God’s name, is Wallace?
Edward was in a tight spot.
It was July 20th 1298 and his army was on the verge of mutiny.
Camped at Kirkliston, ten miles West of Edinburgh, Edward’s huge army of 20,000 had run out of food. Wallace’s tactic of laying waste before the invading host was paying big dividends. He knew full well that the English commissariat could not handle so many men and animals for very long over so great a distance. Bickering between the Welsh contingent of archers and the Anglo Gascon soldiery fuelled by wine had, for the second time, broken out into outright drunken violence, the Welsh accusing, ( not without substance ) the Saxons of giving them very short commons. Re- acting with characteristic swiftness, not to say, ruthlessness Edward, with his knights rode into the Welsh camp and killed eighty of them, telling them to grumble at that if they would and not make pots of their bellies.
The Kings navy, laden with provisions and pay for the army, had set forth from English ports three weeks since, in joint operation with the punitive land army, which crossed the border with Scotland at Coldstream on July the 3rd 1298. Instructed by Edward to make rendezvous at Leith, the ships of the Royal Navy battled a Nor Easterly, strong, persistent and unforgiving. Failing in their endeavour the ships put into port all along the Northumbrian coast to await the prevailing South Westerly, unfortunately in so doing caused Edwards army to eat their shoe leather.
The time honoured Norman tactic of laying waste to an enemy’s homeland in the hope of drawing him out to fight had not succeeded, Wallace had done it for him. Wallace, now Sir William, knighted after his victory at Stirling bridge, had remained elusive, at large in the hinterland and wastes of Scotland, seemingly not wishing to challenge so large an army face to face. Fabian tactics were working very well, so why risk it? Let us wait awhile. Especially with Edward at the helm
Strangely, something changed. Just as Edward was contemplating retirement on Edinburgh, the victualing of his army now critical and his campaign in serious difficulty, Scots turncoat riders* came in to report that Wallace was no more than twenty miles to the North West and making ready to attack Edward as he retreated. This was on the morning of the 21st July.
According to Guisboro* Edward exclaimed ‘ Praise be to God who has delivered me of all difficulties, they shan’t have to follow me for I shall go to meet them this very day’. For some reason the tactics that Wallace had skilfully employed up to that time and had proved so successful that Edward was outmanoeuvred tactically, if not strategically, were abandoned for the risky proposition of full assault on the powerful English. Perhaps his victory at Stirling had misled him as to the fighting prowess and endurance of a Saxon host? Who knows? But that is what he intended to do. However learning of the approach of Edward and realising his strategy had failed Wallace sought a position that would give him every advantage in a pitched battle knowing he would be outnumbered at least 2:1
The position he chose was on a small ridge East of the town of Falkirk. At the bottom of an easy slope lay a small stream which watered boggy ground, this lay to his front. Behind his army was the forest of Callendar, behind that lay Falkirk itself. It was not until the 22nd of July that Edward came up to Wallace’s position, due to famine his forces somewhat stretched out. Wanting to camp and rest his famished army Edward issued orders to that effect. However, his senior commanders remonstrated with him that any delay would hand the initiative back to Wallace and lay the army open to surprise attack. Eventually the King agreed and the attack was ordered. Edward sent the heavy cavalry on ahead, pin the Scots to their position and await himself with main force, giving instructions, on no account were they to attack from their own initiative. He might well as talked to the moon. The temptation upon seeing the Scots drawn up was too much.
The first of 1500 heavies of the English cavalry were led by the Earls Lincoln, Hereford and Norfolk, under the overall command of the usually competent and level headed William Marshall. a second line again 1500 strong, commanded by the warlike Bishop of Durham Antony Bek were to follow after the first and likewise charge the Scots position. On the ridge opposite the Scots confidently awaited the Saxon onslaught drawn up in the tactic of the Schiltrons, circles of men armed with an ash spear twelve feet in length similar to Alexander’s phalanx. On this day, the Scots were arranged in four circles each containing 2000 men, the front rank kneeling whilst the second and third rank stood. It is presumed that they had their shields interlocking, a shield wall. Between them around 700 archers from the forest of Selkirk and Ettrick using the short bow of limited poundage and effectiveness. All along the front and flanks stakes were driven linked together with ropes to assist in the break up of cavalry charges. behind the whole army stood 1000 Scots Barons commanded by the Red Comyn, which constituted the cavalry. Altogether a strong position, or it would have been if the revolution in archery that was about to open and descend upon the heads of the unfortunate Scotsmen. But we get ahead of ourselves.
The battle opened with the younger English Barons not waiting for Edward with main force to come up, full of vim and vigour, but not much sense, charged without orders from their slight slope down to what looked like a small insubstantial stream, however the stream fed a swamp and the cavalry bearing down upon it realised too late the nature of the ground and became mired in the muck, the Ettrick archers making merry hell with them. Edward coming up with his veterans vented his anger on the unfortunate Bishop Bek for the temerity of the Barons and their stupidity, this was why Edward was there dammit!, no more Stirling bridges or anything else of like. Furious at the incompetence unfolding before him and seeing the young men starting to extricate themselves from the swamp he ordered the Bishop to take his horsemen and envelope the Scots right, assist their comrades out of their predicament. The leading horsemen extracted themselves and taking their cue from the Bishop now swarming up the left slope, recovered their poise and bypassing the swamp attacked from their right, the left of the Scots army. Unable to penetrate the hedgehog of long spears and tripping on the interconnecting rope hedge the cavalry, sustaining heavy losses, turned instead to attack the unprotected archers who were operating between the schiltrons and destroyed them. Edward, seething, at Marshalls foolishness, lack of grip and Lincoln’s stupidity, recalled his cavalry seeing their loss and ineffectiveness against the massed circles and the steadiness of the Scots infantry. This was not what he had planned.
Now opens the long gestating revolution in English battlefield tactics, since the early days against the Welsh Princes. The heavy archer now appears, as a regular component on the medieval battlefield. Unable at Stirling Bridge to affect what unfolded there, Edward now brought forward these men with their huge bows and arrows the size of small javelins, to see, for the first time what they could do en mass on a major battlefield.
The first phase of the battle was now over, the Barons made to pay for their impetuosity and not for the first time, their hubris. They did not know it, but in more ways than one, their time was passing.
Edward in the Van ward ( becoming the centre ) arrived on the field and awaited the rest of his army to come up, it’s restored discipline, determined marching intending to impress and un nerve the Scots. Moving forward and stopping 1000yds from the schiltrons. His heavy infantry, veterans from the fighting in France and Gascony, numbered 12,000. Of his archers, again veterans, numbered 5000 men. De Bigod commanded the middle ward and right wing, De Bohun the rear ward and the left wing.
The Scots were down to 8,000 men, but Wallace must still have felt confident, although they have lost all their archers, the schiltrons were as yet undefeated and if the English sent their infantry against the spearmen, they would suffer the same fate as the cavalry. Although Wallace’s schiltrons were strictly defensive, as long as they stayed in being and were not penetrated, survival could mean victory (Think of the immortal squares at Waterloo and what they achieved). If the men are steadfast, do not give in to their fears and do not run, all would be well and victory could be theirs, but it takes strong nerves, especially outnumbered 2:1 and by the look of things, no prospect of quarter.
Bishop Bek, now in his priest* mode holding mass in front of the army, the Scots doing the same, each man kneeling to touch the earth. Moments of unnatural quiet descending on the battlefield, both armies staring at each other across the shallow valley. Suddenly, Edward signalled his archers forward and broke the mood. The whole army moved to conform and protect the archers, on the wings the mauled cavalry did likewise. Crossing the stream and ascending the slope bringing the range down to 150yds the archers opened their account with withering volley’s straight into the schiltrons bringing down scores of men, dead and wounded. The Scots closed ranks, their spears like a forest, but split asunder, falling, the circles becoming smaller with each loose, archers pivoting as they had been taught, by the command of the centenars bringing new targets under their deadly hail, shooting steadily, without hurry, making sure. The Scots, having no effective reply to this new and shocking introduction to warfare started to waver, the heavy arrows penetrating everything and everyone, nothing could keep them out. The schiltrons were now opening, decimated by the unrelenting shooting. Irish slingers adding their contribution to the mayhem. The heavy infantry advanced, the archers job finished. The schiltrons now just a jumbled mass of dead and dying men heaped up, the horsemen roaring in from the wings rampaging, killing all the Scots who remained on the hill. But the Scots did not run, slashing with broadswords, cleaving with battleaxes …they were just the sma folk*, but they died like hero’s.
Stirling Bridge was avenged, the butchers bill was heavy the Scots losing 8000: 10000 men. Of the English, 100 horses 200 men ( approx ) in all
Sir William Wallace was one of those few with a horse available, fleeing before the English knights completed the encirclement, through the forest of Callendar, heading Northwards to Perth thence into the wastes of the Grampians with his remaining companions.
What of the Scottish horse? The Barons? They left the battlefield before it had started, odds of 3:1 suicidal ! ( always pragmatic )They lived to fight another day.
Wallace stood down as his country’s sole guardian, falling as the chroniclers say; ‘Into a deep depression’ He disappeared for 7 years until betrayed to the English at Robroyston by Sir John Menteith. Baron Sir John Menteith. (Always pragmatic ) they lived to betray another day.
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