In part one of this series (The Great Cause (Part 1)), Edward I had forced the Scottish nobles and their King to swear an oath of allegiance to him as their “overlord”. As he believed he had finally subjugated Scotland, the English king attended to affairs in other parts of his kingdom. After the betrayal of John Balliol and a failed rebellion, Edward I completely occupied Scotland. He sent soldiers to ensure his rule would continue. The people of Scotland were taken advantage of and abused under this military occupation. Scotland needed a new champion to take up their cause for freedom. Their nobles had failed them with their infighting and military defeats, so it was time for one of their own to pick up his sword.
William Wallace’s background is hazy and was thought to be the son of a minor feudal lord in Renfrewshire or Ayrshire. He seems to have grown up with military training which contributed to his later success. He was a very tall man . He was over six feet when the average male height was about 5’6” (though this physical characteristic was highly exaggerated in legends). Walter Bower (author of the Scotichronicon) describes him as having “a certain good humour, had so blessed his words and deeds with a certain heavenly gift, that…he won over to himself the grace and favour of the hearts of all loyal Scots.” Bower also described him as “fair in his judgments”, compassionate, patient, and a skilled orator. Yet, English sources would describe him as “a vagrant and a fugitive”, a “bloody man”, and “a chief of brigands” (Morris, pg 303).
Wallace was not the only person to lead a rebellion against the English during this period of occupation, but he is the one who became the historical symbol. Many Scottish nobles led rebellions which included Andrew Murray. Murray was successful in northern Scotland. Wallace was more active in the south. This post will focus on Wallace and his impact during the First Scottish War of Independence, but it is important to recognize that there were others.
It is known that William Wallace was involved in the death of the Sheriff of Lanark in 1297. The Sheriff of Lanark was an Englishman who had been appointed by King Edward I during the occupation. It is unknown the exact reason why Wallace gathered men to commit this act, but one can assume that it is likely the sheriff was abusing his power against the locals as many English officials were. This is what brought William Wallace national attention. He began to attract followers who formed a base in Selkirk Forest. They would perform raids against the English occupiers, and many were successful.
In the summer of 1297, William Wallace and Andrew Murray formed an alliance and combined their forces. Through their hard work, they took back control of a majority of Scotland. Edward I did not have time to make another trip back to Scotland as he was involved in issues with France, so John de Warenne had to act against the rebels. A large army under John de Warenne was sent north from Berwick to meet with the forces of Wallace and Murray at Stirling near the River Forth. This was on September 11, 1297. The Scots were camped on Abbey Craig (which is where the famous Wallace Monument is placed today) and Warenne was feeling rather confident. It is hard to blame him as the English army was known as one of the most powerful forces of the medieval world. For hundreds of years, there had been no true Scottish victory against the English army. The English had about 2,000 heavy cavalry on this day who were heavily armored knights upon intimidating armored horses. These troops would be used to charge and break through enemy lines. The English also had about 7,000 foot soldiers and infantry. They were well-organized, trained and had the best equipment. The Scots only had about 5,000 foot soldiers and about 300 cavalry. These soldiers did not have proper armor and lacked proper equipment. The odds were not in Wallace and Murray’s favor.
Stirling Castle holds an excellent defensive position as it sits atop a volcanic outcrop. It guarded the crossing point of the River Forth and was almost the gateway point between northern and southern Scotland. The two opposing forces in 1297 were on opposite sides of the River Forth and one wooden bridge connected the two sides. It was a wooden bridge that was only wide enough to allow two horsemen to cross at a time and once they reached the other side there would not be much room for an army to move. The terrain was more in the favor of the Scots.
At first the English commanders attempted to negotiate a surrender from the Scots, but Wallace refused. Wallace allegedly said, “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” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/history/articles/battle_of_stirling_bridge/).
The English began to slowly cross the bridge and make a formation on the other side. Meanwhile, Wallace and Murray waited until about half the army had crossed the bridge. When this happened, the Scottish troops charged towards the river and took control of the end of the bridge which cut off the English from the rest of their army. They had effectively divided the enemy. Sir Hugh de Cressingham was killed among the English that had already crossed but Warenne had remained on the other side. Warenne commanded that the bridge was to be destroyed and led the remainder of his army in a retreat. He left those who had already crossed to be slaughtered. This was the famous Battle of Stirling Bridge and defining moment of Wallace’s career.
Warenne had essentially lost control of Scotland in this defeat. Andrew Murray had been killed during this battle which left William Wallace as the last rebel leader standing. He was the sole leader of the Scottish army who had proven themselves in this historic defeat of the English. William Wallace was knighted and named as the Guardian of Scotland (since King John Balliol was still imprisoned). The new Guardian of Scotland took back many towns and strongholds in the south for the Scots which reversed the English control. By November, Wallace began to invade northern England and performed raids against the villages, churches, and the residents. The army burned, pillaged and killed then brought the spoils back to Scotland. This lasted through the end of 1297.
Edward I was still occupied with his campaign in France and with domestic issues, but after hearing of the defeat at Stirling bridge and the invasion into Northern England he knew the subjugation of Scotland was something he could not trust in the hands of others. It was a problem he personally had to eliminate. In January 1298, Edward I finally came to an agreement in France which formed a two-year truce. He could now carry his troops back to England and turn to the Scottish troubles. Edward was no longer playing games and brought a massive force with him. It is estimated that there were about 26,000 infantry and about 3,000 cavalry that traveled north with Edward I. Yet, as they arrived in Scotland (burning their way through) they had no idea where the Scottish army and Wallace had gone. They wandered around and searched while their supplies dwindled. Their supply shipments from England were extremely delayed. With a stroke of luck, in July, a spy had spotted the Scots who were planning an attack upon the weakened English.
The two forces met at Falkirk on July 22, 1298. The English army was again much larger than the Scots, so Wallace had to create a defensive strategy. The pike men of the Scottish army formed schiltron. Schiltrons were circular positions where the soldier’s 12-foot spears were turned outwards. These positions would be used as a tactic against cavalry charges. The schiltron would protect the archers behind them and would be almost impenetrable. Unfortunately, they were no match for the English longbow.
The longbow was one of the most important weapon developments in medieval warfare. The longbow warriors of England were highly trained and devastating. Edward I and other kings of England had banned all sports on Sundays, except for archery. They encouraged many tournaments using the bow. This was a smart strategy because there would always be a large group of experienced archers that could be called in a time of war. The arrows used with this bow could pierce armor and shields and had the fastest rate of fire for the time period. It is said that an experienced longbow user could “shoot up to 14 arrows per minute.” (Hourly History. Wars of Scottish Independence: A History from Beginning to End). Since they shot so fast, several volleys of arrows could be released before the first had hit the targets. The longbow was the dominate ranged weapons used in warfare until the introduction of the firearm.
The schiltrons were extremely weak to the longbows and were an easy target. The hail of arrows destroyed these defensive positions which left the Scottish army exposed. Edward I had his cavalry rush in and destroy those who remained. William Wallace did escape from this battle but had lost his reputation and the confidence of the Scots. The cavalry (all Scottish nobles) who had been at this battle did retreat as it became clear it was going to be an English victory. Many have viewed this moment as an ultimate betrayal. Were they traitors? Or were they able to see clearly that defeat was inevitable and had the ability to flee and fight another day?
Wallace resigned from his position as Guardian of Scotland and fell out of the historical record for a period (it is still unclear where exactly Wallace had retreated to at this time). He was replaced by Robert Bruce (the grandson of the previous Robert Bruce that was discussed in part one) and Bruce’s rival, John Comyn (nephew of King John Balliol). This again caused a division in Scottish politics as factions were formed siding with one or the other. It is suggested that Wallace may have traveled to France in order to gain support for the Scots, but, obviously, that did not work out too well if it did happen.
Though Edward defeated an army of commoners at Falkirk, the nobles who he needed submission from were still at large. From 1297-1304, it was a back and forth fight between the Scots and the English. Edward I was quickly running out of money and resources. He could not maintain the massive army that he had brought with him. Due to these conditions, members Edward’s army were deserting rapidly. English citizens were worn out by the high taxes that had been imposed on them for years due to the many wars and campaigns that their king had been involved in. In 1302, a brief truce was offered by Edward.
To the annoyance of Edward I, the Scots proved tougher than he had originally thought. After seven years of struggle, Edward I was finally able to bring Scotland back under his control in 1304. He obtained submissions from most of the Scottish nobility. William Wallace was now the only notable Scotsman who had never sworn this oath. On August 5, 1305, William Wallace was arrested after he was betrayed by his own countryman, Sir John Menteith. This was likely in exchange for titles or wealth by Edward I. Wallace was hung, drawn, and quartered. His head was exhibited on London Bridge and his limbs sent to all four corners of England as a warning to those who opposed Edward I.
“By this that tyrant thought to destroy the fame of the noble William forever, since in the eyes of the foolish his life seemed to be ended with such a contemptible death. But such a death does not count against him, for it has been written:
The sudden death of a just man after a good life does not lessen his merits if he dies thus.”
(William Bowers, Selections from the Scotichronicon, pg 168)
Scotland was once again under English control, but it was not the end for the movement for Scottish independence. In fact, the movement was just beginning.
**Stay tuned for part 3!**
Bower, Walter and D E R Watt, ed. A History Book for Scots: Selections from the Scotichronicon. Mercat Press: Edinburgh, 1998.
Captivating History. Wars of Scottish Independence: A Captivating Guide to the Battles Between the Kingdom of Scotland and the Kingdom of England, Including the Impact Made by King Robert the Bruce. Captivating History, 2018.
Hourly History. Wars of Scottish Independence: A History from Beginning to End. Hourly History, 2019.
Morris, Marc. A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain. New York. Pegasus Books, 2008.
Goldstein, R. James (1991) “The Women of the Wars of Independence in Literature and History,” Studies in Scottish Literature: Vol. 26: Iss. 1. Available at: https://scholarcommons.sc.edu/ssl/vol26/iss1/22
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