The battle of Stirling Bridge was fought on the 11th September 1297 between an English army commanded by John de Warenne, 7th Earl of Surrey and an army of Scottish rebels under the leadership of Andrew of Moray and William Wallace.

The Background

On the 26th September 1290 Margaret Maid of Norway, grandaughter Alexander III, and the last surviving descendant of the House of Canmore, died enroute from Norway to Scotland. Edward I of England assumed the burden of providing Scotland with its next king and held a grand competition for the Scottish throne. The winner of the competition proved to be one John Baliol, but he proved to be somewhat unsatisfactory ruler from Edward's point of view, unwilling to take orders and condemned for conspiring with the French. Thus was born the First Scottish War of Independence as Edward I marched into Scotland in the summer of 1296 and enforced the submission of the Scottish nobility.

However not every Scot was prepared to surrender to the English king and two gentlemen in particular, William Wallace and Andrew of Moray, began generally making nuisance of themselves, and led an insurrection against Edward's rule. By the end of the summer of 1297 Wallace was busy besieging Dundee castle when Edward I decided to send an army north under the command of John de Warenne, the Earl of Surrey to crush the rebels.

Before the battle

Warenne's progress though the south of Scotland was fairly straightforward and in early September 1297 he reached the town of Stirling on the river Forth beyond which lay the Scottish highlands.

As far as John de Warenne was concerned his objective was to simply find and destroy the rebel army commanded by William Wallace and Andrew of Moray. The only trouble was that the rebels were on the opposite bank of the river Forth, where they had placed their men on the slopes of the Ochil Hills occupying the high ground overlooking the river bank. Therefore Warenne was faced with the problem of getting his army across the river Forth in order to engage the enemy and complete his mission. This proved to be a somewhat trickier task than might be imagined as only available bridge at Stirling was a narrow wooden affair which at best was only wide enough to allow two men abreast, and whilst there were two fords nearby at Cambuskenneth and Kildean, they were only passable at low-tide.

On the 10th September John de Warenne convened a meeting with his field commanders to discuss how to proceed during which Richard Lundie suggested that the best plan would be to take a body of knights and cavalry across the fords and strike the rebels from the rear in order to prevent the Scots from falling on them as soon as they crossed the bridge. This was sensible advice as it turned out, but at the urging of others such as Hugh de Cressingham, Warenne rejected the suggestion as he was not willing to divide his army. (He also suspected treachery on the part of Richard Lundie, who was a recent Scots defector.)

John de Warenne therefore gave the orders for his army to cross the bridge at dawn the following day and enagage the enemy.

The battle of Stirling Bridge

Therefore on the morning of the 11th September 1297, the English army began filing its way across the bridge and taking up position on the marshy ground on the opposite bank of the river. By mid-morning, Marmaduke de Thweng, the constable of Stirling, had led an advance guard of cavalry to cover for the English move across the river. But as Richard Lundie had prophesised, progress was painstakingly slow, hampered by narrow bridge and the soft ground. In the meantime William Wallace and Andrew of Moray sat on the hills above the bridge biding their time.

They waited until around eleven o'clock, when they decided the time was right to attack and ordered their men to charge down the hill at the enemy. As the shock of the Scottish charge hit the English lines the English vanguard now found itself caught between the press of troops coming from behind and the pressure of the Scots advance. It was a similar story on the bridge as men found themselves unable to move forward. Jostled from behind by their impatient comrades, they found themselves pushed to the ground and trampled underfoot. Inevitably many found themselves being pushed into the river, where those who were sufficiently misfortunate to be wearing armour simply sank to the bottom and drowned.

It soon became clear that the English forces were taking heavy casualties and panic set in. Although Marmaduke de Thweng kept his nerve, and charged and dispersed the Scottish cavalry, he then realised that his line of retreat was being blocked by the mass of men around the bridgehead and that he was in danger of being cut off. So he charged the enemy and succeeded in hacking his way through and back cross the river to safety. He then gave the order to destroy the bridge, leaving those stranded on the opposite bank at the mercy of the Scots.

By twelve o'clock that day the battle was essentially over. Something in the region of 5,000 English infantry and perhaps 100 cavalry had been killed whilst the Scottish dead numbered only in the hundreds. One of the few significant Scottish losses on that day was that of Andrew of Moray who was seriously wounded at the battle and died of his injuries some weeks later.

On a grisly side note it is worth mentioning the fate of Hugh de Cressingham, the much hated Treasurer of Scotland who died at Stirling Bridge. According to the Chronicle of Lanercost the Scots multilated and flayed the corpse of the unfortunate Hugh, and afterwards dried and cured his skin and distributed it amongst themselves as souveniers of the great day. The Chronicle further noted that "William Wallace caused a broad strip to be taken from his head to the heel, to make therewith a baldric for his sword".

The Aftermath

Many of the Scottish nobility such as James Stewart and the Earl of Lennox, now came out in support of Wallace and Moray. They held a council meeting was held at Perth and elected William Wallace and Andrew of Moray as joint of Guardians of Scotland in the name of King John Baliol. But Moray as previously noted, did not survive long and was dead by the beginning of November. This of course, left William Wallace as the sole Guardian of Scotland and enabled Wallace (or at least those who were later to mythologise Wallace as a Scottish national hero) to claim all credit for the victory.

Although the bulk of the English army had taken no part in the battle and remained intact, John de Warenne lost his nerve. Thoroughly spooked he retreated back to the safety of England as quickly as he could, burning and looting whatever they could get their hands on enroute. The Scots chased them as far as Dunbar but then abandoned them to their fate. Stirling Castle surrendered to the Scots and Marmaduke de Thweng found himself a prisoner of the Scots whilst Wallace spent most of the autumn of 1297 raiding far into Northumberland and Cumberland until Warenne finally got his act together and began securing the lowlands in early 1298.

Although Stirling Bridge has since been much celebrated in Scotland, somewhat ironically Wallace's cause might have been better served had he lost the battle, or at least avoided fighting it in the first place. In the late summer and autumn of 1297 England was on the brink of civil war as many of the English barons were on the verge of rebellion after many years of heavy taxation imposed by Edward to fund his imperial ambitions in Scotland, Wales and the continent. It was the news of the Scottish victory at Stirling Bridge that caused Edward and his domestic opponents to forget their differences and join together to face a common foe.


The battle very naturally features in the movie Braveheart where it appears as the 'battle of Stirling' with no bridge and bears no resemblance whatsoever to the historical encounter. However devotees of Medieval: Total War will know that Stirling Bridge features as one of the Historical Battles that can be repeatedly refought at leisure and is fairly accurate representation of the historic encounter.


SOURCES

  • Maurice Powicke The Thirteenth Century (OUP, 1962)
  • Battle of Stirling Bridge 11th September 1297 http://www.waichung.demon.co.uk/william/stirling.htm
  • G. A. Henty In Freedom's Cause Chapter IX. The Battle of Stirling Bridge http://www.classicreader.com/read.php/sid.14/bookid.1819/sec.10/

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