Scottish heroes William Wallace and Andrew Murray combined their ragtag rebel armies to hand the hated English conquerors an epic defeat.
As dawn broke on September 11,1297, two opposing and very different armies confronted each other across the River Forth, west of Edinburgh, Scotland. Stirling Castle—one of two major strongholds in northern Scotland still in English hands—dominated the scene, and Stirling Bridge spanned the river. The wooden bridge was “so narrow that even two horsemen could scarcely and with much difficulty ride side by side,” according to Walter of Guisborough, an English chronicler of the time, and a mile-long causeway led from the span across the fields. The bridge crossed at a bight in the river, so the ground on the north bank was bound on three sides by water. For an ambush, this was an ideal spot. For a full-scale battle, it was a perilous place, especially for an army relying upon heavy cavalry, as did the English forces under John de Warenne, the Earl of Surrey. His vanguard comprised some 200 mail-clad knights and men-at-arms on barded horses, supported by about 10,000 infantrymen, occupying the south bank of the river below the castle.
Facing Surrey’s mighty army across the river waited a smaller rebellious Scots army with just three dozen cavalrymen and about 8,000 foot soldiers, led by two legendary, energetic and passionate leaders: Andrew Murray and William Wallace. Murray—who is largely forgotten now, but was likely the more able leader—was the son of a baron, educated and trained in military matters, while Wallace was a notorious outlaw. Both had recently risen to prominence, having seized upon widespread unrest in Scotland stemming from the heavy taxes and petty corruption that characterized English rule under King Edward I. The open resentment had lately exploded into a full-blown uprising with Edward’s announced plan to draft his Scottish subjects into the English army. Murray in the north and Wallace in the south had separately attacked English authorities for about five months before merging their armies in late August 1297 near Stirling Castle.
After his decisive victories at Berwick-upon-Tweed and Spottismuir, King Edward had appointed the Earl of Surrey custodian of the English occupation. But Edward was slow to react to such provocations as young Murray’s ambush of Sir William Fitz Warin, the constable of Urquhart Castle, and his torching of the castle of Sir Reginald Cheyne, the sheriff of Elgin—decidedly nonchivalric raids that nevertheless drew supporters and brought northern Scotland under Murray’s control.
About the same time, William Wallace burst dramatically onto the pages of history in an orgy of violence. “William Wallace lifted up his head from his den—as it were—and slew the English sheriff of Lanark, a doughty and powerful man,” wrote John of Fordun, a 14th century Scots chronicler. Wallace went on to attack other symbols of English authority, launching a surprise attack on the court of William Ormsby at Scone and reputedly slaughtering the garrison of Dunotter Castle near Aberdeen. Wallace’s attacks enhanced his reputation and drew an army of rebellious followers. “From that time, therefore, there gathered to his side [like a swarm of bees] all those who were bitter in their outlook and oppressed by the burden of servitude under the intolerable rule of English domination, and he was made their leader,” wrote Abbot Walter Bower, a 15th century Scots chronicler. Now, the two leaders were spoiling for a fight with Surrey’s army.
By midsummer of 1297, the violent rebellion against English rule in Scotland had escalated to an intolerable level, and King Edward was given the bad news: “By far the greater part of your counties of the realm of Scotland are still unprovided with keepers, as [they have been killed or imprisoned]; and some have given up their bailiwicks, and others neither will nor dare return; and in some counties the Scots have established and placed bailiffs and ministers, so that no county is in proper order, excepting Berwick and Roxburgh, and this only lately.”
This was a dire picture. Sir Hugh Cressingham, the roundly hated English treasurer of Scotland, was loaned £2,000 (the equivalent of over $1.4 million in today’s money) by the royal exchequer to finance the restoration of order. But it was too late. Murray and Wallace’s risings raged unabated. No action was taken against them when it could still have made a difference, and they had gained the support of such powerful figures as Robert Wishart, the bishop of Glasgow, and Robert Bruce of Carrick (who would eventually become king of Scotland in 1306). Cressingham was unable to make any headway in subduing the spreading rebellion, and in the summer of 1297 he wrote to King Edward, “From the time when I left you, not a penny could be raised in your [realm of Scotland by any means] until my lord…[the earl of Surrey] shall enter your land and compel the people of your country by force and sentences of law.”
Surrey, for his part, had evinced no enthusiasm for his role as custodian of Scotland, preferring to remain at home and try to administer the fractious country from afar. Despite his absence of fire for combat with the obstreperous Scots, Surrey finally moved northward with a formidable army to suppress the rebellion. He led the army into Scotland in August and had the misfortune to meet the combined forces of Murray and Wallace at Stirling Bridge.
The English vanguard began advancing across the bridge shortly after dawn, but as the host’s 66- year-old leader had overslept, the soldiers were recalled. Once Surrey did rise, he indulged in some chivalric customs, knighting several esquires. Surrey made one final attempt to avoid battle:
Two Dominican friars were sent to the Scottish army, which was hiding with the brigand William Wallace on another part of the mountain above the monastery of Cambuskenneth, to find out whether the Scots were willing to accept the peace which they were being offered. The brigand [Wallace] replied: “Give this answer to your people. We have not come in search of peace, but to do battle in order to free ourselves and liberate our kingdom. So let them come up to meet us if they wish, and they will find us prepared against their very beards.”
In seeking a negotiated surrender, Surrey demonstrated little understanding of the two leaders he now faced. Murray and Wallace had long since discarded the chivalric rules of war and simply sought to destroy the English forces.
While Surrey procrastinated about moving forward, one of his knights, Sir Richard Lundie, voiced misgivings about advancing across the narrow bridge under the Scottish army’s gaze. He proposed leading a force of knights and infantry across a ford some two miles upstream and attacking the Scots from behind. Surrey would have none of it. Cressingham finally broke the deadlock. He said, according to Guisborough: “It will do us no good, my lord earl, either to go on bickering like this or to waste the king’s money by vain manoeuvres. So let us cross over right away, and do our duty as we are bound to do.”
At last Surrey’s vanguard began to file over the narrow bridge. The Scottish forces did not attack, and the English advance continued unhindered for the rest of the morning until about half of Surrey’s army was deployed on the north bank. Murray and Wallace watched and waited patiently. Suddenly the morning’s peace was shattered by a blast from Wallace’s horn. It was the signal to attack, and a wave of Scots spearmen charged the left flank of Surrey’s vanguard, engulfing it. Guisborough wrote that “a large body of spearmen [advanced] to block the end of the bridge, so that no English could either come across or retire over it.”
The sounds of battle filled the air as men fought and died in a murderous crush. The magnificent warhorses of the English cavalry were of little use in the confined space at the end of the bridge. Knights and men-at-arms were pulled from their mounts and butchered, their armor and chain mail of little protection as daggers were pushed into the eye slits of helmets and swords thrust between the joints of body armor.
Sir Marmaduke Twengue had been one of the first men across the Forth at the point of the vanguard. When the Scots attacked, Twengue counterattacked, managing to scatter an approaching force of Scottish horsemen. Finding the approach to the bridge blocked, Twengue declared he would hack a path across it to safety rather than take his chances in the river, which, true to his word, he duly did. He was one of the few who escaped the Scots’ trap.
The most prominent English casualty was Cressingham. Guisborough was unsympathetic, writing, “Of all the many who were deceived that day, he was deceived most of all.” Cressingham, an obese man, tumbled from his horse and was slaughtered where he lay. Among the other casualties were Sir Richard Waldegrave, the constable of Stirling Castle, along with King Edward’s and Surrey’s standard-bearers. Sir Robert Somerville and his son stood their ground courageously until they too were overwhelmed.
Some knights took their chances in the Forth, but most drowned as the weight of their chain mail dragged them under. Foot soldiers, unencumbered by armor, were more successful in retreating across the river. In all about 100 English knights and perhaps 5,000 foot soldiers were slaughtered on the north bank or drowned.
The shock of the annihilation of his vanguard proved too much for Surrey. He ordered the bridge set ablaze and, leaving the defense of Stirling Castle to Twengue and Fitz Warin, fled with indecent haste for the sanctuary of Berwick. In the scornful words of Guisborough, “[The earl’s] charger never once tasted food during the whole journey.” The Scottish cavalry pursued the fleeing remnants of the routed English host. “[Surrey] escaped with difficulty and with a small following, so hotly did the enemy pursue them,” according to the Lanercost chronicler. The final act of the battle was the slaughter of the fleeing English baggage train and defenseless camp followers.
Elated to find the detested treasurer Cressingham’s bloated corpse among the dead, the Scots flayed the skin from his body and divided it among themselves, “not as holy relics, but in mockery of him,” states Guisborough. The Lanercost chronicler records that Wallace had “a broad strip [of Cressingham’s skin]…taken from the head to the heel, to make therewith a baldric [sheath] for his sword.”
Murray and Wallace had smartly outmaneuvered Surrey, and when the carnage ceased, only the English dead remained. The garrison of Dundee Castle, one of the remaining English strongholds, surrendered on news of Surrey’s defeat. Stirling Castle fell soon after, delivering Twengue and Fitz Warin into captivity.
The lopsided victory at Stirling Bridge was a truly astonishing outcome, with far-reaching repercussions. For the first time in almost 300 years, a Scottish army had defeated the English in battle—an electrifying event for Scotland. Murray and Wallace’s victory also marked the end of heavy cavalry’s dominance of the battlefield. The shock waves Stirling Bridge sent through English society proved surprisingly positive for King Edward, ending his long-running dispute with his barons and uniting his kingdom behind him.
For the Scots the price of victory was high. Young Andrew Murray was mortally wounded and died soon thereafter. Wallace, as the surviving victor of Stirling, was knighted and made guardian of the Kingdom of Scotland. One English chronicler described him as “an archer of low birth and poor descent and education” and sneered that conferring such a title on him was “making a knight of a robber, just like a swan from a raven.” Nevertheless, Wallace would become an enduring icon of Scottish patriotism, even though he would be defeated the following year by English archers under King Edward at the Battle of Falkirk.
For further reading, James G. Taylor recommends: The Scottish War of Independence, by Evan M. Barron and William Wallace, by Andrew Fisher.
Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.