Post-classical history

Section One: The Path to Battle




(Edward I) ‘decided with an oath that he would lay the whole of Scotland waste from sea to sea and force its people into submission.’

Chronicle Rishanger

IN THE LATE THIRTEENTH century Scotland faced a challenge to its continuing survival from a strong and acquisitive English king who as early as 1291 told his privy council that he had it in his mind ‘to bring under his dominion the king and the realm of Scotland’.1While Scottish monarchs had always in some respects held subordinate positions compared with their more powerful English counterparts (the Pope, for instance, withheld their right to be anointed at their coronations) they had consistently rejected any suggestions that they could be considered vassals of the English crown. In accordance with this tradition, on 29 October 1278 King Alexander III stood before the Court of Westminster and denied that his brother-in-law Edward I had any degree of feudal superiority over him. ‘(Although) I become your man for the lands which I hold of you in the Kingdom of England for which I owe homage … No one has a right to homage for my Kingdom of Scotland save God alone, and I hold it only of God.’2

Notwithstanding such close family ties and the generally friendly relations between the two countries, Edward, who by the 1280s had become the most respected monarch in Europe, became obsessed with extending his own claims of suzerainty over Scotland. Such a challenge could not be taken lightly for Edward was a monarch whose ambitions were matched by endless energy and single-minded ruthlessness. He had, for instance, already codified English law to his own pattern, justifying the changes by citing previous cases of corruption and miscarriages of justice, and had gone on to abrogate Welsh powers of jurisdiction in those parts of the principality brought under his control.

Whether a subtle-minded reformer or not (particularly when it was to his own advantage), this tall, commanding figure was essentially a warrior king who was quite prepared to achieve his objectives by mounting a military challenge to Scotland. However, with his on-going conquest of Wales, and almost continuous warfare with France, a third military front seemed very likely to place almost unbearable strains on the English exchequer.

Edward could never have doubted that Scotland, with its unbroken line of kings stretching back to before William the Conqueror and its geographical remoteness, represented a quite different and more difficult proposition than Wales. Apart from the amicable relations between the two crowns many of Edward’s powerful and ambitious nobles, such as Balliol, Bruce and Umfraville, held lands on both sides of the border and their allegiance was therefore divided. Edward needed a strong pretext to involve himself in the affairs of Scotland and to justify despatching an English army into that country.

Such an opportunity presented itself through what many men in medieval times considered a stroke of fate. In March 1286 Alexander III met with a sudden and untimely death; on a storm-swept night he was hurrying to join Yolande, his new French wife, at Kinghorn by the Firth of Forth when in blizzard conditions he outdistanced his escort and his horse carried him over a steep crag along the foreshore. The role of the monarch was pivotal in the affairs of a medieval state and the tragedy for Scotland was that Alexander had no living male issue. A strong, wise king was succeeded by his four-year-old granddaughter, Margaret, the Maid of Norway, the only child of Alexander’s daughter Margaret, who had died giving birth, and Eric II of Norway.

Alexander had shown himself well aware of the dangers that could come from internal unrest in the event of his death and he had arranged that prior to the Maid’s enthronement, no fewer than six men should act as joint guardians of the kingdom made up from two representatives of the country’s senior nobles, its earls, two representatives of the bishops and two representatives of the barons. The two most likely contenders for the Scottish throne, Robert Bruce, known as the Competitor, and John Balliol, were not included because the king foresaw a very real threat of civil war between their two factions. However, he had seen that support for Bruce and Balliol was evenly divided among the six guardians.

Bruce was much the older of the two men. By 1286, in spite of his continuing ambitions and still abundant energy, he was fully seventy-five years of age. Even in the event of his claim to the throne proving successful he was unlikely to have reigned for long. Fortunately for the Bruces their male line was well represented. The old Competitor’s eldest son, another Robert Bruce, was Lord of Annandale, a vast estate in the Scottish southwest. Bruce of Annandale was forty years of age at this time and his eldest son also carried the family name of Robert Bruce. Although still a boy of twelve he was destined to become King Robert I. In 1286 John Balliol too, had a son, called Edward, from his marriage during 1281 to Isabel, daughter of John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey.

One of the guardians’ first actions was to inform their seemingly friendly senior monarch, Edward I, of the plans being made to govern Scotland in the absence of the Maid. It is also likely they initiated the arrangements for a marriage to be negotiated between Edward Caernarvon, Edward I’s heir, and Margaret, the Maid, for with Edward I acting as her guarantor the guardians could feel sure Margaret’s succession would be implemented. Their concerns seemed justified for while their envoys were in England the Competitor and his son seized the two royal castles of Dumfries and Wigtown along with the Balliol fortress of Buittle in a bid to strengthen their position in the southwest against John Balliol. Through their concern for internal stability, however, the guardians seemed willing to ignore the even greater advantages of the union to the English king, including his use of it as a first step towards assimilating Scotland. Any such plans fell through when, in 1290, Margaret died as she made her way to Scotland.

With thirteen men possessing some sort of claim to the vacant Scottish throne the English king was given a fresh, and potentially more dangerous, opportunity to exert his control over the country. One of the guardians, Bishop William Fraser (Bishop of St Andrews and a Balliol supporter), fearing with some justification that the Bruces would make a full bid for the crown, wrote to Edward I asking him to come to the border to prevent bloodshed. In response, working on the assumption that he was their feudal superior, Edward issued a summons for the Scots to meet him – not in Scotland but at a parliament across the English border at Norham. While they had expected Edward to act as arbiter he came as overlord and judge demanding the claimants to recognise him as both their feudal superior and Lord Paramount of Scotland. To support his dictates he brought troops at his back calling up English levies from the northern counties to meet him at Norham on 3 June 1291. Nine of the claimants quickly acknowledged him as their feudal superior and on 11 June, avowedly to avoid internal unrest, Edward ordered all Scottish castles to be turned over to him until two months after the succession had been decided. He then proceeded to replace many Scottish officials with Englishmen.

Edward adopted a measured and unhurried approach to the so-called ‘Great Cause’ of deciding who had the best claims to the Scottish throne, and eighteen months passed in deliberation (during which Edward enjoyed considerable control over Scotland) before John Balliol was declared the strongest candidate. Unlike his main rival, the belligerent Competitor, Balliol was a younger son so probably destined for a church appointment and therefore unprepared for such elevation.3 The Lanercost Chronicler for instance dismissed him as brainless.4 While such seeming limitations did not debar him, he had fewer obvious interests in Scotland than the Competitor for, although Balliol had become Lord of Galloway on the death of his mother, he had estates in seventeen English counties and his main demesne was across the Channel, in Picardy.

Balliol was duly enthroned in November 1292 and during the next month paid homage for his kingdom to the English monarch. Edward, giving Balliol no opportunity to establish himself as king, rapidly let it be known that authority to hear appeals from Balliol’s courts lay with him and Balliol was, therefore, required to defend the judgements in his own courts by making the long journey from Scotland to London where he was also liable for any damages if the verdicts were amended.

Edward appeared determined to goad the Scottish king into rebellion, a situation which would, of course, allow him to seize Scotland as a forfeited fiefdom. The final insult came in June 1294 when he openly treated Scotland as his feudal property by summoning Balliol, together with ten earls and sixteen barons including Robert Bruce, the Competitor, to serve with him against France. In July 1295 a council of twelve leading figures assumed the direction of Scottish affairs from their timid king. They reasserted the rights of the northern kingdom by declaring forfeit the lands of English nobles in Scotland and followed this by making overtures to France for assistance; they also proposed that John Balliol’s son, Edward, should marry King Philip’s niece, Jeanne Valois, thus marking the formal beginning of the ‘auld alliance’. At the same time summonses were put out across Scotland to raise an army in its defence to be led by a representative of the powerful Comyn family.

In February 1296, under Edward’s command, a formidable English army, with a large component of armoured cavalry and stiffened by veterans from the Welsh and French wars, began a deliberate move towards the Scottish border, but on Easter Monday it was pre-empted by the Scottish feudal host that crossed into England. Their traditional means of recruitment had enabled the Scots to raise quickly a respectable army from able-bodied men aged between sixteen and sixty which in the main came from the country’s earldoms north of the Forth. However, because their last encounter – no more than a skirmish – had been against the Norwegians at the Battle of Largs twenty-three years earlier, it was understandably inexperienced. Less excusably, its supporting equipment and level of discipline were also lacking. With the Comyn Earl of Buchan as the senior commander, the use made of what was predominantly an army of footsoldiers was also disappointing. Buchan was not much gifted militarily and, lacking siege equipment, he failed to capture the border fortress of Carlisle commanded for the English on this occasion by the Competitor’s son, Robert Bruce, Lord of Annandale. In fact, the Scottish soldiers could do no better than ravage the countryside of Northumberland. In any case, their forces were weakened by the number of influential Scottish nobles who were out of sympathy with John Balliol and the Comyns and who remained loyal to the English king, including the earls of March and Angus, and the Bruces, both of Carrick and Annandale.

In contrast, the English army, with the king at its head, moved against the prime target of Berwick, Scotland’s main port and the centre of its wool trade. The English soon pierced the town’s long-neglected defences but, as it still refused to yield, the king granted his troops three days of pillage, rape and murder. It was said he did not finally give the order to stop until he saw a pregnant woman put to the sword and her dead infant sprawled beside her.5 Chroniclers varied in their estimates of the dead, from 7000 by Hector Boece to 60,000 by Matthew of Westminster,6 but corpses were piled high in the streets. Whatever the actual casualties, from his behaviour Scotland could have no illusions about Edward’s intentions.

The first clash between the two main armies occurred at Dunbar, where the Earl of March had his castle. The opportunity came about due to the Scottish nobility’s divided loyalties at this time. March was an English supporter but his wife, Marjorie Comyn, allowed the Scots to occupy the castle, thus prompting the English king to send one of his commanders, John Warenne, Earl of Surrey, together with a strong contingent of armoured knights, to retake it. The defenders appealed for help and the main Scottish army set out to relieve them. Warenne decided to meet the challenge by threatening the garrison with detachments of soldiers under his more junior commanders, while his veteran horsemen met the advancing Scottish army as it came over the crest of nearby Spottsmuir Hill. As the two sides closed with each other the English had to cross a steep valley intersected by the Spot burn, and when they disappeared from sight the Scots thought they were either withdrawing or had lost cohesion. Not for the first time their horsemen left a commanding position as, blowing wildly on their horns, they galloped down the hill in their anxiety to meet the enemy. Those with the strongest horses pulled their way to the front but by the time they came within striking distance, the English cavalry had regained their close formation. In the ensuing encounter they put the piecemeal Scottish attack to such flight that some of the cavalry did not stop until they reached Selkirk Forest, about forty miles away. Abandoned by their horse the unfortunate Scottish infantry were ridden down and suffered heavy casualties, which English sources put as high as 10,000 men. As a result of his conclusive victory Edward received the surrender of Dunbar Castle on the following day, together with that of three earls, Atholl, Ross and Menteith, as well as 130 knights and esquires.

Scotland’s feudal host had proved wholly inadequate against the superior discipline and skilled leadership of the English; their defeat laid the country open to Edward’s further conquest and he went on to occupy its central region without meeting more than token resistance. The formidable castle of Stirling, for instance, was deserted except for a porter who tamely handed its keys over to the invaders. On 21 June the English king reached Perth where he received two Franciscan friars sent by John Balliol to ask for peace. Their request was granted, although the price paid by Balliol was exorbitant. On 8 July at Montrose he was forced to surrender formally the Kingdom of Scotland and to acknowledge his errors ‘through evil counsel and our own simplicity’, followed by a humiliating public ceremony in which the arms of Scotland were ripped off his surcoat. Ever afterwards he was given the harsh soubriquet of ‘Toom Tabard’ – empty coat. This accomplished, Edward proceeded on a triumphal march northwards to the Moray Firth.

Having traversed the conquered kingdom, Edward left no one in any doubt about his respect for Scotland’s independence when he had its sacred relics, the symbolic Stone of Destiny upon which the kings of Scots had traditionally been enthroned along with the fragment of the true cross bequeathed by Margaret, wife of Malcolm III, sent to Westminster Abbey. Edward also sent the Scottish royal records and plate to England, never to be seen again. At a parliament held in Berwick during August 1296 the English king endorsed his authority by requiring all substantial Scottish landowners to pay an oath of fealty to him as lord of Scotland. About 1500, including clergy, signed what became known as the Ragman’s Roll – from the mass of tangled ribbons that carried their seals of authority – following which Edward issued his orders for garrisoning the country.

The short war was apparently over. In both its main engagements English leadership had proved markedly superior. Given their limitations in equipment the Scots could never have reasonably hoped to seize their chosen objective, the strong border fortress of Carlisle, and they were compelled to content themselves with the lesser one of burning and looting the surrounding countryside while the English experienced no such difficulty with their own chosen prize, the preeminent trading centre of Berwick. Similarly, at Dunbar, Warenne kept his military priorities clearly in mind. When it came to a choice between destroying the main Scottish army or relieving Dunbar Castle he much favoured meeting the army. He knew that if he could defeat the Scottish army they would have the greatest difficulty in retaining the castle. Warenne therefore attempted to prevent any sally from the castle’s garrison against his rear by dividing his forces. However, in this he was careful to use his less-seasoned personnel to threaten the castle, keeping his experienced leaders and the bulk of his troops to face the advancing Scottish cavalry. One can only speculate about the possible outcome if the English and Scottish leadership had been equally competent but in their eagerness to exchange blows the Scots revealed startling naïveté and over-optimism, playing directly into Warenne’s wily hands and allowing themselves to be caught at a massive disadvantage.

In September 1296 the English king crossed the Channel to conduct his war in Gascony. The country he now liked to think of as northernmost England seemed cowed; its nobility had sworn their loyalty to him and their disgraced king, John Balliol, was held securely in the Tower of London. The other main contender for the Scottish throne, Robert Bruce (his father, the Competitor, had died in the previous year), was being made to prove his loyalty as commander of Carlisle Castle while his son, the young Robert Bruce, was for the moment living quietly on his own estates.

In reality Scotland was far from cowed. Although large numbers of English troops, including armoured cavalry, were now garrisoned across the country, there was deep resentment against this English occupation from men of all classes, especially among senior members of the Scottish church, who supported two remarkable young leaders, William Wallace and Andrew Moray, in spearheading a new rebellion. Wallace was a squire and the younger son of Sir Malcolm Wallace of Elderslie near Paisley. Certainly no more than twenty-five years of age he was tall and extremely strong, and quickly demonstrated considerable powers of leadership when, in the spring of 1297, he began the fight-back by assassinating Edward’s officials. His first target was Selby, the son of Dundee’s English constable, and in May 1297 he followed it by killing William Heselrig, the English appointee as Sheriff of Lanark. Heselrig’s death caused many men from southern and central Scotland to unite with the daring guerrilla fighter, including a nobleman and professional soldier, William Douglas, former commander of Berwick Castle. Together they planned to kill one of Edward’s most senior officials, William Ormsby, his justiciar, who only narrowly escaped.

At this time another focus of revolt emerged headed by two senior figures, James Stewart, Wallace’s feudal superior, and Robert Wishart, Bishop of Glasgow. Unlike Wallace, who kept to the great forests of Selkirk, they took the more conventional decision of openly raising their standard at Irvine in Ayrshire where they were joined by the twenty-three-year-old Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick. In response an English cavalry force under Henry Percy, Yorkshire nobleman and grandson of Warenne, together with Robert Clifford, a major landowner and keen soldier from Westmorland, was rapidly despatched to attack them. Although its leaders were from the Scottish nobility, by far the largest proportion of the Scottish force at Irvine were infantry. In addition, the Scottish nobles, particularly Robert Bruce and the Balliol supporters, were unable to agree on their respective rights to command and on whose behalf they were fighting. It was a disastrous situation for any army and as a result Stewart and Douglas emerged from the Scottish lines to meet the advancing English and ask for surrender terms. These proved lenient enough although hostages were demanded to act as guarantors of the Scottish leaders’ good faith. With this shameful capitulation the remaining hopes for resistance in southern Scotland depended on William Wallace and his growing numbers of followers. Although, with supreme confidence, Wallace ordered the Scottish nobles to join him, most remained unpersuaded of a modest squire’s ability to meet the all-conquering English, and few answered his summons.

Meanwhile further north a second young man had raised his standard against the invaders. Andrew Moray, son of Sir Alexander Moray of Petty, came from one of Scotland’s great Highland families. He started out with small bodies of men loyal to his family before being joined by a burgher from Inverness, Alexander Pilché, together with other citizens from the town. Initially he ambushed small English detachments but, as his numbers rose, he went on to attack and capture a number of northern castles, including the pivotal one at Inverness.

Further south Wallace knew the English were certain to seek him out and although, after Dunbar and Irvine, much the safest course would have been to continue with his guerrilla tactics, he took the amazingly courageous decision to meet the English in open battle – if strictly on his own terms – in an attempt to regain control of central Scotland. Wallace moved northwards to Dundee while the majority of his infantry continued to be trained in the forest of Selkirk. At Dundee he besieged the castle, which as Wallace had foreseen, provoked Edward’s senior commander, Warenne, into leaving his safe haven at Berwick. Together with further military units under Hugh Cressingham, Edward’s Scottish treasurer, he decided to seek out and destroy Wallace and his rebels.

On learning of their advance Wallace broke off his siege and moved towards Stirling where anyone intending to move northwards would have to cross the River Forth. Shortly before this Wallace and Moray had met and agreed that they would work together and, equally importantly, that Moray would serve under Wallace’s command. Their joint forces, together with Wallace’s infantry from Selkirk forest, converged on Stirling where Wallace’s conduct was to mark him, despite his youth and lack of formal experience, as a gifted military commander.

The battle of Stirling Bridge was a David and Goliath contest. Wallace and Moray’s forces totalled 10,000 men at the most, against more than three times as many English. Although mainly footsoldiers, the Scots included a small cavalry element under the separate control of nobles such as Malcolm, Earl of Lennox, and James Stewart, whose earlier behaviour at Irvine had been less than heroic. The infantry, drawn from widely different backgrounds, had been together for less than a month and their experience so far was limited to irregular operations. In contrast the English footsoldiers were not only numerically superior but they included a company of the famed Welsh bowmen.7 Most importantly, the comparatively large numbers of English heavy cavalry completely outmatched its few Scottish counterparts. In the Scots’ favour their two young leaders were determined to win back their country’s freedom and they had also both enjoyed a string of successes, albeit in small-scale operations. Crucially they were given the chance to choose the battlefield.

As for the English commanders, in the absence of the king, command devolved on John Warenne, Earl of Surrey, in poor health and older than the combined ages of the two young Scottish commanders. His experience of war, however, was immeasurably greater than theirs, even though most had been gained on the battlefield thirty years before. His ability had been clearly evident at Dunbar, but such a contest had been sufficiently undemanding to give him a dangerous measure of over-confidence. Nor was Warenne on good terms with Hugh Cressingham, his vanguard commander, whose own troops despised him for being both a bastard and a vain, self-opinionated individual.

Wallace positioned his men on Abbey Craig, an isolated volcanic eminence rising a hundred feet from the flat and marshy plain where the River Forth meandered in great bends below it (see map). Abbey Craig overlooked the main road northwards at the point where it crossed the River Forth by a long and narrow wooden bridge. Despite some qualms on Warenne’s part Cressingham accepted the option of crossing by the bridge under Wallace’s full gaze, even when there were other fords downstream which could have been used to outflank the Scots’ position.

Wallace had chosen a battle site with many advantages: fronted by wet and rough water meadows it gave the approaching English no opportunity to use their cavalry effectively; equally important for Wallace’s smaller force, movement across such a narrow bridge onto the meadows was bound to be slow and would allow the Scots the opportunity of taking the offensive themselves before the English had brought a significant portion of their troops over it. Finally, it offered a good line of withdrawal if required.

However, to succeed against such superior forces required uncommon powers of leadership. Wallace needed cool nerves and sound judgement together with the ability to keep a tight control over his irregulars. For at least two hours the English cavalry and infantry clattered across the bridge and formed up on its further side within a loop of the river. Then with a blast on Wallace’s horn the Scots came running down the steep slopes in tight formation, leaping across the turf hummocks to close with the English. Their speed of movement gave their opponents no time to draw up their battle lines nor bring their bowmen into action, while the English cavalry experienced major difficulties in holding their footing on the wet and broken carseland. As the Scots crashed into their packed ranks the English gave way and being unable to fight properly they started to panic. Wallace had appointed a dedicated group of soldiers to block the bridge and Warenne was forced to watch both the destruction of his vanguard and the killing of Cressingham before he turned and fled to Berwick, leaving his army to the mercy of the Scots as it sought to follow him.

Stirling Bridge was a great victory for William Wallace and Andrew Moray, although Moray received wounds there from which he died. They had trapped as many of the English as Wallace thought he could beat within the bend of an impassable river on ground unsuitable for heavy cavalry, and he joined battle so quickly that the English were prevented from using their archers in their normal deadly fashion. His astute choice of ground avoided using his own weak and suspect cavalry, said to have been ‘lurking in the woods near the hills’,8 although it went on to play a part in the pursuit. The victory also owed much to English over-confidence and fatal differences among its commanders.


However, while Stirling Bridge was a singular victory, there was no possibility that it would end the war. What it did, on the other hand, was to buy time for the Scottish leadership to rethink its possible response towards subsequent invading armies and to help develop a greater sense of national purpose.

During the next ten months Wallace did everything possible to gather together an army capable of meeting the English, who this time would be commanded by their king. Although initially retreating before the invaders and devastating the country as he went, Wallace eventually offered battle on a relatively modest hill near Falkirk, standing on the line of the Roman Antonine wall. Why he chose such a position has puzzled commentators not fully appreciative of the conditions needed for his spearmen, although several other important factors no doubt influenced his decision. He knew, for instance, that his delaying tactics had not only caused the English supply system to break down but the army’s morale had fallen to an alarming degree. He might also have had his choices limited by the nobles among his cavalry, for whom Wallace’s tactics of scorched earth and evasion were contrary to their chivalric codes of military behaviour. They might even have threatened to desert him if he did not stand and fight.9 Such nobles, including the proud and powerful John Comyn (the Red Comyn, John Balliol’s brother-in-law), were virtually certain to have chafed against being overborne by a modest squire, however skilled he might have shown himself the year before. With the Comyns the fact that Wallace’s feudal superior, James Stewart, was a supporter and friend of their rivals, the Bruces, would not have helped either. Wallace could not risk their non-co-operation nor, worse still, their defection. Finally, he also had good grounds for doubting whether he could keep such a large army in being much longer and whether he could raise a similar one in the following year. Unless Wallace could beat the English decisively at Falkirk, Edward I’s determination to subdue Scotland would keep him in the border regions with his household troops ready to resume operations over the next campaigning season when Wallace would be less well supported.

Although such factors undoubtedly played a significant part in persuading Wallace to fight at Falkirk it was his creation of schiltrons expressly designed to counter the English heavy cavalry that was likely to have weighed most heavily in his calculations. He placed his four detachments of spearmen numbering somewhat fewer than two thousand men each in a rough semi-circle on the forward edge of Mumrills’ small rounded crest. These soldiers with their twelve-foot spears and wooden targes were aligned in circular formation at the edge of which men knelt shoulder to shoulder with the butts of their iron-tipped spears resting on the ground. Immediately in support were a further two ranks with their spears either grounded and pointing outwards or, more likely, lifted into a horizontal position to fend off attacking horsemen. Additional men waited in the redoubts ready to make good any gaps appearing as men fell.

The schiltrons, or shield rings as the chronicler Guisborough called them, were in some respects like traditional Greek phalanxes, although unlike the Greek formations they were static. In the Scottish phalanx its members’ fighting qualities were enhanced by the contemporary practice whereby a proportion of knights chose to fight dismounted with their followers. Standing alongside their clan or household superiors such as MacDuff, the Earl of Fife, or Sir Nichol de Rutherford, who brought sixty followers with him, the spearmen would not have dared let their comrades down. The ordinary levies would also have been kept up to their task by Wallace’s drill sergeants placed at strategic points within the ranks. These were given wide authority by a leader whose own determination was evident by the gallows which he ordered to be erected in every town ‘on which all without a reasonable cause absenting themselves from the army under foreign pretexts should be hanged’.10

In theory if the spearmen held firm armoured cavalry would be unable to subdue them, being literally kept at spears’ length. In practice, the cavalry enjoyed additional support from their own infantry, including the deadly longbowmen. To counter these opponents Wallace buttressed his schiltrons with Scotland’s short bowmen. While their weapons’ range and penetrative power were markedly inferior, once the English had moved onto the small hill to close with the spear circles the short bows could come fully into play.

By skilful use of ground Wallace had thereby countered the superior range of the English archers but he had no equivalent means of helping his other fighting component, the Scottish light cavalry, heavily outnumbered by their English opponents. He had tried the only way he knew how to make good this deficiency by requesting assistance from the French nobleman, Charles de Valois, along with his heavy horsemen, but this had been refused. Nonetheless while completely outmatched by the English heavy cavalry the few Scottish horsemen were still important to Wallace to help counter the English infantry and bowmen. Their presence alone prevented the English footsoldiers from ranging freely over the battlefield.

Whatever his concerns about the other arms, the essence of Wallace’s army lay with his spearmen. There is little doubt he would have known about the earlier battle of Maes Moydog (1295) where the English had demonstrated how their skilful use of cavalry supported by bowmen could defeat a Welsh infantry army. Wallace knew he had to do better at Falkirk and therefore ensured his men would also be supported by bowmen as they stood on the forward edge of Mumrills hill. He knew that they awaited an army that was not only tired and weakened from lack of provisions but whose Welsh bowmen were mutinous. In such circumstances he had reason to hope the English would expend their energies against his resolute formations and that Scottish courage and determination would cause them to lose heart as had happened with the English main army at Stirling Bridge.


The weakness of such reasoning lay in his limited options if the English were not rebutted and gained the ascendancy. The schiltrons were admirably drilled to hold their ground but in the time allowed him and with his soldiers’ inexperience he had been unable to extend their movements to the more complex ones of moving off the field in a cohesive fashion or – if it had ever crossed his mind – the far more difficult one still of taking the offensive against their opponents.

In the early stages of the battle Wallace’s tactics seemed fully justified even when he faced the English cavalry totalling some 2400 riders formed into three divisions. Of these no less than 1300 were full-time (including some mercenaries from Gascony) together with 1100 nobles who, accompanied by their retinues, were honouring their feudal obligations to the king.11 He not only succeeded in beating off the first two attacks but he inflicted heavy losses on the aggressors.

The balance began to move in favour of the English after Wallace’s cavalry fled but even when his schiltrons lost their covering archers and were pinned down and surrounded by the English cavalry it took massed bowmen firing from the shortest range into their packed ranks to seal their fate. By this point, however, Wallace had no further alternatives. He was forced to watch the destruction of his army, and families across the whole of Scotland would be obliged to mourn men lost in the battle, including short bowmen who, until new archers had completed their comparatively lengthy training, were irreplaceable. Wallace himself was forced to give up the guardianship and during the next seven years before his terrible death at the hands of the English never again commanded any sizeable military force.

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