Stirling Bridge 12th September 1297
Rise! Is there anything more annoying than ingratitude? You do everything possible to help people, their troubles, their lack of a good, fair and just ruler, they then throw it back in your face. Well, I’m afraid this face* has turned from soft and smiley to solid granite. And a chip from this block, Wallace, old chap, is coming to a place, near you, very soon…
The 7th Earl of Surrey, John de Warenne was tired, cream crackered, if truth be known, at 65* he was getting a bit too old for this sort of thing, war is a young man’s game. ‘By the lamp of St Peter’ his old bones ached. Too many long days’ in the saddle, too many damp fogs, camps and hard grounds, too many fights, especially those! Inclined to make you cautious, by now a case of daring don’t rather than daring do. All he really wanted to do was retire to his lands in Surrey and put his slippers on and feet up. Edward though had other ideas’ and had ordered him North, fast! This frightening man expected much so he will obey his Liege Lord and give of his best. Unfortunately he had that fat, parsiminious wretch de Cressingham on his back, forever whinging about the cost of the campaign. ‘After all is said and done! Quoth he, Wallace is not a ‘gentleman’ and the treasury is not to be overburdened with bringing this, bloody man, this common brigand’, to heel. Enough!
De Cressingham was indeed corpulent, a knight and a bishop*, one of Edward’s inner circle entrusted with the gathering of cash and loot ( tax ) from the good people of Hibernia. At this time, the year of 1296, despite de Cressingham’s rifling through their sporrans* the Scots’ still hadn’t gotten too uppity, a state of sullen rage rather than outright rebellion, consoling themselves with a passionate hatred of him and all things English, ( except footy ). It was when Edward, claiming liege by right of conquest and insisting that the Scots send men to join his armies in France, that things started to kick off. It is why de Warenne and his second in command Hew de Cressingham were at Stirling Castle along with 20,000 men in the Autumn of 1297. Reluctantly acting on instructions from Edward ( who was in France ) to give the rebels a ‘frightfull shoeing’, de Warenne had headed North from Berwick to root out the leaders of the rebellion and put and end to? Well, frankly, just about everything. Edward was most explicite about this. He was known as the ’Hammer of the Scots’. The leopard*. There will be, must be, much pain. He… will… not… be… crossed. Clear….?
Well, dear reader, the sorry tale that I now tell, ( If you be Saxon) is one of the sheerest for incompetence, bad judgement and hubris. If from North of the border? A joyous bell ringing singing eck wringing tale much more easily told.* If you, whoever you are, (or may be) and hold no brief for the English, ( heaven preserve us) I invite you to sit back, quietly quaff your favourite wet and await the telling in gleefull anticipation.
The torch of rebellion now fully alight, all Scotland in uproar under the leadership of the charismatic William Wallace and his comrade in arms Sir Andrew de Moray. The Barons, ever vacillating ( much to lose, scared witless of Edward) started to come over to him, but reluctantly, they regarded him ( Wallace) as low born and not ‘one of them’. De Moray was the instinctive attachment. It was the so called ‘small folk’*who were his real companions and core of his army, the Barons ( not by any means all ) would melt away when their interests conflicted with their politics, rather than with their patriotism, which was, by and large, solid. To Wallace and the ‘sma folk‘, Scotland ‘was’ their patriotism, their interests ‘were’ Scotland…naught else! They, also, had much to lose and were not frightened of Edward*…
Wallace, Andrew de Moray and the Scots army were camped on the Ochil hills which overlook the town of Stirling and it’s vital strategic fortress. In the vale below, the river Forth flowed strong, wide and deep in long lazy loops. Within one of the bends opposite the town a bridge made of boulders and logs, just wide enough to let two riders pass, spanned the river. On the side away from the town a causeway led Northwards, from the bridge over waterlogged and marshy ground, leading to a place called Causeway Head, approximately ¾ of a mile long, ending just under the Scots’ positions, which stretched from Spital hill to Abbey Crag, a front of around a thousand yards. Surrey was a worried man, he may have seen two battles too many, but his years of experience were now a twitch in his bowels.
Going on past experience, fighting the Gael with heavy cavalry should be a piece of cake, but… still? Some of his most senior commanders were concerned about the narrowness of the bridge, which would slow the transfer of troops and their support into the bridgehead, swampy ground either side of the causeway, the left flank a yawning invitation, open, good ground to the North West once the flood plain was crossed, damnedly little room for maneuver, the obvious tactical astuteness of Wallace and de Moray, the strong Scots position. It was a deadly place to have a battle, anyone who went over by the bridge would surely get a good kicking. They must seek another way.
The younger blades, egged on by the oily Hew were all for getting across the bridge, charging up the causeway and getting stuck in, ( aren’t they a hoot?). Quarrelling broke out, Surrey’s weak leadership bedevilling the situation, he now, however, had a fit of obduracy and decided to wait. Under the influence of the Scots Earl of Lennox and Sir James Stewart ( Scots Nobles fighting for the English) they, thinking that Wallace was in for a severe thrashing and wanting the the sma’ folk preserved, persuaded Surrey to instruct de Cressingham to send in two of his Dominican friars and negotiate terms with Wallace and offer the Scots’ pardon with the King’s peace, (or else). This he did with much complaint at the delay, the cost ( to the exchequer ) of that delay. Wallace and de Moray answered Surrey’s offer scornfully with the words;
‘Tell your people that we have not come here to gain peace, but are prepared for battle to avenge and deliver our country.
Let them come up when they like and they will find us ready to meet them, even to their beards.’ *
Enter at this juncture Sir Richard Lundie, another Scots defector ( hated Wallace more than the English) who addressed the council of war ordered by Surrey.
‘If we gae ontae the brig we are deed men, there is a ford no far frae here, the ford o drip, aboot a mile awa*, horsemen can cross sixty at a time . Gie me five hunnert and some infantie and we can tak them in the rear, pin them sae that ye may cross the brig in safety. A way had been found! Huzzah! ( Phew! Panic over, tea‘s up )
It was rejected outright by de Cressingham, ( Groans all round, this idiot is going to get us all killed ) Surrey vacillated, most in the council of war were in favour of Lundie’s plan, it was sound, if the timing was right, it would, in all probability work. There were just 10,000 Scots spearmen up on the Ochils and 300 light cavalry, no match for the English heavies. Even if it did not work, the disaster about to unfold surely would not have happened. Although crossing the bridge was inane, no one expected the Scots to do what they did. De Warenne, it is my contention, was going to send the bulk of his foot against Wallace, (thinking that he would not depart a strong position in the Ochils ) and anchor him down. Send 1000 of his cavalry up to the good ground a mile away to the North West and outflank him, make him nervous, the rest of his heavies make the Scots infantry go into Shiltron for protection,( hopefully). Foot and cavalry would make little headway against the porcupine of long spears and newly found discipline, but the archers would decimate the circles, allowing the Barons to rampage. A big risk and a good few what if’s, and all according to whether the Scots let them. Wallace charged,…. he was not going to let them. However, I am bound to say that de Warenne would most likely pluck defeat from the jaws of victory.
Under de Cressingham’s scornfull attacks and unwilling to divide his army, Surrey gave way. Tomorrow they would cross the bridge. It was the evening of the 11th of September 1297.
The Sun rose, Surrey didn’t. Sky fine and clear, morning hastened on, the fast done, Surrey slept. Anxious of de Warenne’s plan and his none appearance , the Senior Barons’ took matters into their own hands and sent 4000 of the Anglo Welsh archers and foot under Sir Robert de Somerville* across the river to establish a bridgehead. Surrey awoke ( Oh Dear, not a good start, where are my boots? ). Angered, Surrey recalled the foot and archers, ‘I’m’ in charge here!’ ( Wallace and de Moray looking on must have been mystified and perhaps amused at these goings on ).
Finally, after reviewing his troops and acknowledging the occasional ironic cheer, Surrey ordered de Cressingham, and Sir Richard Waldegrave* with full panoply of medieval pageantry, chivalry, flags, banners, glittering weapons and armour ( what a sight that must have been ) to take an advance guard of heavies, across the bridge and occupy the causeway, thereby establishing another bridgehead, to be followed by the archers and foot, again under de Somerville. This movement of the English host started at around 11o clock in the morning.
Wallace and de Moray awaited the slow transfer of the oncoming advance guard, it would not do to strike too soon, worse still, too late. They watched, carefully, as part of the advance guard numbering around 100 knights commanded by a Yorkshire man Sir Marmaduke de Thweng * by name, came toward them, securing the Northern perimeter of the causeway closest to the Scots ( if only temporarily). The main body of the English host was still on the town side of the river. About 5000 knights, heavy infantry and archers had over the course of an hour crossed onto the causeway and the surrounding marshy ground. Judging that this would now do, the odds 2:1 in his favour, Wallace ordered all out assault, his spearmen charging down from the Ochils, smashed into de Thweng , killing and dispersing his knights. Without pausing, racing on to the Anglo Welsh archers and foot and behind them de Waldegrave and his heavies, pushing them off the causeway by the sheer ferocity and momentum of the attack, causing them to panic, lose cohesion and flounder in the mud of the marshes. At the same time the English main advance guard was taken in flank by Scots foot and horse under de Moray swinging in from the left, consequently finding themselves surrounded by envelopement. The Scots’ adroitly securing the Northern side of the bridge hemmed the English into a pocket formed by a loop in the river, around 400 yds by 400 yds. Panicked Saxons fighting furiously, with the desperation of despair, knowing death was close, tried to hew their way back to the main body. Archers, when they could, shot at point blank range, or fought as light infantry, using ghastly falchion work. The English heavy infantry, blades and axes, hammers and spikes carved into the circling Scot with bloody minded determination, ultimately, to no avail, they were stopped by the rampaging Celt who packed them tighter and tighter, like the Romans at Cannae. Those who could flee, did so and went for the river trying their luck within it’s cold, deep embrace. The English on the bridge now being forced back, by the Scots gone berzerk, collided with those who were trying to come to their comrades rescue. The result? An inferno of killing, men shrieking, gripped in the Satanic death’s head of blood lust and murder. The bridge partially collapsing under the weight of men, horses and blows of battle.* Sir Marmaduke de Thweng outdoing the Scots in ding dong heroic flat out bonkers rage, ( shades of his ancestors the Vikings) fellow knights dead or dying around him, Gathered those who remained, his dead son across his saddle, howling vilely, backslashed, stabbed, hacked, killed all the way back down the causeway (3/4 of a mile remember) and back across the bridge to safety. (what a man, what a geezer )
Utterly appalled, the English high command, could only watch the disaster unfold. Of the Barons in the advance guard, only de Thweng survived, the others, including pond life, de Cressingham, died, badly. Our whinging Bishop seeing that things were not going quite according to plan, did a swift turn about, fell like a sack of lard from his horse and promptly took a spear to the throat. The Anglo Welsh archers had little chance to ply their deadly trade and went down to a man, a great and sad loss to the army.
Each life thrown away, for that is what it was, consumed a whole life spent training in the use of the longbow. A criminal waste, they should have been protected. Surrey, snapping out of his indecision ordered the bridge destroyed whilst the fighting was still going on, preventing any incursion over the river by the victorious Wallace ( they, the Scots, to make persuit, would now have to wait until the tides made the fords passable). He was a shaken and thoroughly demoralised man, in the space of less than an hour he had lost 5000 men, his army, still by the main intact and 15,000 men fit to fight , with determined leadership morale could have been quickly restored. It was a defeat, but with application and good generalship he could have turned it around and thereby kept the Scottish Barons,( fighting ostensibly for the English; threats, politics and hostages) onside and also adding a part 2 to the battle. He was having none of it, the loss, especially of the archers had unnerved him, back to the border, slippers and leafy Surrey for him, stuff Edward. That decision turned a setback into a complete defeat. A rout! Incredibly, that’s what happened. It was a disgrace, the roulette Scots, Lennox and Stewart, turned back again to Wallace and did great harm to the army on their retreat, smashing up the baggage and roughing up the rearguard. Surrey may have been a geezer in the past, but he sure wasn’t one now. He legged it as fast as he could back to the border and Berwick*. As ignominious and spineless a retreat as you could wish to find. Attacked all the way home. After this debacle, no Englishman could be found alive in Scotland. Scotland was, … free?
Incandescent, yellow eyes aglow, hating, crouching, biding his time……The leopard, arched, ready to spring.
* Edward the 1st
* 65 yrs, Very old for a medieval man. Especially having to endure the hardships of campaigning
* Bishop, a just and peacefull servant to the ‘Remnant‘, a washer of feet. Not someone who rides around looking for trouble and carrying a club with nails sticking out the end.
* Sporran, a pouch made from the skin of the Wild Haggis. (Haggei Fera )
* The author spent some of his formative years at school in Scotland and 661 years on, had this and other matters, shoved down his English throat thrice weekly, so I know.
* Small folk, Essentially anyone who was not one of Them! Someone exactly like you. Look in the mirror and there’s your answer.
* Edward the 1st King of England, Wales, Ireland, France the Universe and eventually, Scotland, a very tall man at 6 foot 2 ( for those days) and mightily ambitious, rightly to be feared, utterly ruthless, a hard case. Generalship out of the top drawer, made mistakes, but you had to be on top of your game if you faced him.
* Attributed to Gibson, sounds like de Moray to me.
* Sir Robert de Somerville, ancestor of Admiral Sir James Somerville one of the Royal Navy’s formost fighting sailors during the second world war. A Great man.
* Sir Richard de Waldegrave, ancestor of William Waldegrave, a senior minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government. ( Them, they are still here, you know, they haven‘t gone away. Scratch another one from my ‘Observer‘s book of Normans‘)
* Sir Marmaduke de Thweng, what a name, what a geezer, wish I was called that. Apart from being from Yorkshire, that is.
* The Ford of Drip is at Kildean, 1 mile West of the English lines.
* The good Bishop was, when found, divested of his skin and transformed by the ladies from hell into sporrans.
* Edward Longshanks.
* The partial collapse of the bridge was due to the fact that the contractor was a Campbell. ( Falkirk Gazette )
* Berwick, main border town and fortress. Usual muster place for English forces invading Scotland via the scenic eastern route. ( For the cousins ... Pronounced; Berik)
* Haggis. A small, furry quadruped. When caught, ( nowadays by the use of explosives ) is adjudged by all Restaurant de Chippies, certainly at least within the British Isles, to be one of the great classics of Scottish cuisine. About the size of a hedgehog and tasting just like one, served hot with neeps, tatties or chips and several vats of ‘Dewars Old Peculiar’
‘Quoted; Recipes from Old Barlinnie 1980.
As a P.S, In the weeks following the battle, the Lowland Porridge bashers drove massive herds of domesticated Haggis (Haggei Nepius) over the border in revenge for the English incursions. Devouring every blade of grass between Berwick and Carlisle. Not nice, not nice at all.