Post-classical history


AT DAWN ON 22 JULY 1298 the peremptory shouts of drill sergeants followed by their soldiers’ shorter acknowledgements interrupted the regular birdcalls and the sloughing of the wind on a peaceful hillock adjoining Mumrills Brae just east of Falkirk. The Scottish army was preparing to take up its battle stations on the hill’s crest. It was by no means the first time military commands had been heard there; some eleven centuries before, Mumrills had carried one of nineteen forts standing on the Roman wall that straddled the narrow waist of Scotland between the two great inlets of the rivers Firth and Clyde. Within fifty years the Romans had abandoned their northernmost wall and fallen back to the much longer one built by the Emperor Hadrian on what was to become the Scoto-English border.

The soldiers on their way up to Mumrills’ flat crest were not peering northwards for marauding tribesmen, however. Instead, the Scottish host assembled by William Wallace, who, at twenty-six years of age had already proved himself a brilliant natural soldier and determined guardian of his country on behalf of its deposed king, John Balliol, was looking east for sight of a formidable army under the veteran English king, Edward I, approaching along the old Roman road from Linlithgow. The English column had reached Linlithgow the day before and as the Scottish spearmen left their bivouacs in nearby Torwood to form up, Wallace’s scouts had already provided him with a steady commentary on Edward’s progress westwards. In fact, the English were ahead of time following an injury to their king inflicted by his own war horse. Like other chargers it had remained bitted and saddled while being kept close to its rider who could then quickly mount in the event of any surprise Scottish attack. As Edward lay resting on the ground his charger became excited and trampled on him, apparently breaking two of his ribs. Reports about his injuries soon spread and multiplied and a sense of near panic arose in the English camp. But Edward I had never lacked courage nor resolve and although it was still dark, the fifty-nine-year-old monarch immediately mounted his horse and resumed the advance. The king halted his army close to Mumrills before the grey morning sky gave way to full daylight where he ordered them to hear mass on this, the feast day of St Mary Magdalene. While tired from their wearisome pursuit and the shortest of rests during the previous night the English had strong cause to feel confident about the outcome. They had finally run to earth the one Scottish leader who had succeeded in thwarting their battle ranks. With their forces’ marked superiority in archers, both long- and cross-bowmen, and their total dominance in heavy cavalry, they would surely soon overcome him.

On the Scottish side Wallace relied largely on his schiltrons, novel formations of spearmen aligned into circular formations. As the schiltrons formed up Wallace’s engineers arrived with carts full of wooden stakes sharpened at each end. Working in pairs with one man holding a stake and the other hammering it into the firm ground they erected a protective circle of spikes pointing outwards which they afterwards roped together to help withstand the fearsome charges of English armoured knights.

Wallace gave further protection to his spear circles by positioning his own short-bowmen between them while further detachments of archers covered his open flanks. The third element in Wallace’s human redoubt was his cavalry, just an eighth of the English strength, dressed in lighter armour and riding smaller horses. Not only were the Scottish cavalry utterly outnumbered and outclassed but they had been sent by such nobles as John Comyn (the Red) and the earls of Atholl, Menteith, Lennox and Buchan, while a further contingent was likely to have come from Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick. Such senior magnates were unlikely to allow their riders to come under Wallace’s full control.

With his fewer numbers, Wallace had been forced to conclude he could not spare any part of his force to meet the attackers before they came to close range. Committed to their formations on the hilltop his bowmen and spearmen had no option but to await the forthcoming attacks. However, Wallace had good reason to expect the English horses which, like their soldiers, had lived on short rations and had been hard used during the pursuit, would become winded negotiating his covering obstacles. In the worst case, he knew he could move his army back into the extensive Torwood stretching round his rear where the English cavalry would itself become vulnerable.

Wallace’s final contribution before the battle was the traditional address of encouragement to his assembled men. ‘I have brought you to the ring,’ he said, ‘dance the best you can.’

The initial attacks were mounted by Edward’s massed heavy cavalry, mounted on their massive shire horses. The first was led by Norfolk, the earl marshal, who set off towards the Scottish right-hand schiltron before disappearing from Wallace’s sight as it encountered the band of heavy marsh bounding the West Quarter burn. While it was still hidden from the Scottish commander’s view, the English second division, commanded by the Bishop of Durham, was ordered to begin its attack against the Scots’ left.

Simultaneous assaults on both flanks supported by a frontal attack from the English main body was quite the worst scenario Wallace could have expected. However, while approaching fast, the main body under the king had yet to engage in the fighting. The initial Scottish response to the two flanking attacks was both determined and effective. The left hand spear ring fully justified Wallace’s formation; they withstood all assaults made upon them and impaled many English horses on their massed spikes. Unfortunately for Wallace the brave conduct of his spearmen was not equalled by the cavalry, who fled the field without striking a blow. As a result the English cavalry, deprived of any mounted opponents, were able to turn from the spearmen to easier targets. Thundering between and around the schiltrons, the armoured juggernauts succeeded in riding the Scottish archers down. As they attempted to stand their ground these were killed to a man, along with their commander, Sir John Stewart. With the flight of the Scottish cavalry other English horsemen were free to circle the rear of the hill and block Wallace’s escape route. At this point the English king moved his third division forward. Instead of despatching his cavalry against the serried spears he ordered bowmen to loose volleys of arrows at point blank range into the beleaguered circles. From this short distance only the spearmen’s wooden targes could successfully withstand such missiles. Taper-headed arrows tore through helmets and the plated armour of the day which in any case was only worn by a privileged few. The shafts had even less difficulty in penetrating chain mail. The defenders were under no illusions that if arrows entered their bodies, they were likely to die, while any limbs that were hit would need rapid amputation performed in the crude fashion of the time.

As medieval battles went Falkirk was both bitter and protracted. Despite alternate assaults on them by both cavalry and bowmen, the schiltrons showed amazing courage and continued to resist doggedly. But Wallace knew there could be only one outcome. With the schiltrons trapped the English king was in no hurry as he directed his bowmen’s fire against each one in turn. Even when their shafts had been despatched the defenders gained little respite for the archers were ordered to pick up flints lying on the burn bed and on the hillside. Using slings or simply relying on their heavily muscled right arms, they were able to take deliberate aim at the faces or legs of the stationary Scots. As the rocks found their targets, bones fractured and cheeks reddened with blood; many spearmen went down joining those transfixed by arrows and the mail-clad cavalry began to break into the circles. Once inside, the heavy horses bowled over defenders before trampling them with their iron-clad hooves, while their riders’ swords, maces and axes were used to terrible effect on those still struggling to keep their footing and point their lances outwards. Within the circles discipline loosened and the Welsh bowmen now gleefully joined in the hand-to-hand fighting that had become a slaughter. Of the Scottish nobles who fought dismounted, Wallace’s great friend Sir John the Graham, together with MacDuff and his two sons and Andrew Moray of Bothwell, died where they stood.1 About a third of the spearmen, many carrying serious wounds, reached whatever cover they could and Wallace rallied a group that turned savagely on the English who pursued them into Callendar Wood. During the engagement it was probably Wallace himself who killed Brother Brian de Jay, the master of the English Templars. But nothing could reverse the scale of the defeat. Many spearmen who found temporary hiding places in the open were subsequently killed as they attempted to flee north, run down by the rampaging cavalry as they searched desperately for opportunities to cross the slippery, treacherous banks of the river Carron.

Following the battle, Scottish patriots were bound to ask each other, ‘Where can Scotland go now?’ Wallace had assembled the best army his country could supply and after equipping and preparing it thoroughly he had not risked it in open battle until his English pursuers were half-starved and wearied due to a continuing lack of supplies. While his chosen defensive position on Mumrills Hill was undoubtedly not that impressive, it enjoyed protection on three sides from a burn and wet broken ground. And after the English had taxed their horses ascending it they came onto a flat top that favoured Wallace’s formations quite as much as theirs.

The soldiers who survived the defeat and succeeded in returning to their townships would have left no one in any doubt about the stringent training they had undergone with Wallace, and they had good reasons to be proud of their own performance in the battle. Such survivors would have doubtless felt far differently about their cavalry – men who from childhood were trained in war but who fled the field at the very sight of the larger numbers of English knights. However, the plain fact was that in spite of the courage and tenacity shown by both the Scottish spearmen and their archers at Mumrills, they had been unable to counter overwhelming English arms.

Given England’s superior military resources, Scottish fighting men, nobles and soldiers alike, had the strongest reasons to question how anyone could do better against such adverse odds.

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