A battle fought during the First Scottish War of Independence between the Scots led by William Wallace and an invasion force led by Edward I ruler of England.

The Background

Following his victory at the battle of Stirling Bridge on the 11th September 1297, plain old William Wallace had become Sir William Wallace, Guardian of the Realm of Scotland and spent most of the remainder of the year 1297 retaking Berwick-upon-Tweed ravaging the north of England.1

At the time Edward I, king of the English was away in France campaigning against its king Philip IV but at the beginning of 1298, Philip and Edward agreed on a peace deal and Edward was free to come and deal with the rebellious Scots. Edward I returned to England and established himself at York and gathered together an invasion force at Newcastle, drawn from all corners of his domain.

Before the battle

On the 3rd July, Edward I crossed the river Tweed with 12,500 or more infantry and over 2,500 cavalry, many of whom were veterans of his French campaigns. But as the army advanced north towards Stirling, it became short of provisions as the English supply fleet was prevented from sailing by bad weather. So having reached as far as Linlithgow, Edward decided to fall back towards Edinburgh. As the army retreated there was squabbling and even open warfare between the various English, French, Welsh and Irish contingents and the Welsh got so fed up with their treatment that they threatened to defect to Wallace.2

Meanwhile Wallace faced with an invasion force that was superior both in numbers and military technology, decided to withdraw his army from the field and was hiding in Callander Wood, south of Falkirk, waiting for the opportunity to harass the English as and when they retreated.

However before Edward reached Edinburgh, the Scottish Earls of Angus and Dunbar arrived at the English camp to betray the location of Wallace's army to Edward.

Thanks be to God, who hitherto hath delivered me from every danger, they need not chase after me, I will go forth and meet them
Which is what he did.

The Battle

Now Wallace had come up with a secret weapon called the schiltron, designed to counter the threat of the English heavy cavalry. The idea was to organise his infantry into box formations behind a line of long stakes driven into the ground which were then roped together. Behind these he arranged rows of his foot soldiers with their twelve foot long spears protruding outwards, very much akin to the Greek phalanx of the classical period.4 This Wallace believed would allow his infantry to withstand the charge of heavy cavalry and produce the desired victory.

On the field at Falkirk, Wallace deployed his infantry into four such schiltrons each comprising of some 1,500 to 2,000 men; between the schiltrons he placed his groups of short-bow archers and in the rear was his cavalry, numbering some 1,000 commanded by various Scottish nobles.3 His total army probably amounted to some 10,000 men in all, a significantly smaller force than the 15,000 plus commanded by Edward I.

But despite the numerical disadvantage William Wallace decided to stand and fight, trusting to his schiltrons and the enthusiasm of his troops, whom he supposedly encouraged with the famous words;

Now, I haif brocht ye to the ring - hop gif ye can
(Now I have brought you to the ring, dance if you can)

On the 22nd July the English army advanced towards Wallace. Their confidence was swelled by their numerical superiority and were eager to attack. So despite Edward's expressed desire to rest his army before the battle, he gave into the urgings of his men to attack at once.

The first English column of heavy cavalry led by the Earl Marshal therefore charged the Scottish lines, but the schiltrons stood firm, and the English took losses as many knights were unhorsed and hacked to death on the ground. However the cavalry made short work of the Scottish bowmen whose arrows had little power to penetrate the armour of the mounted knights, and they were all quickly killed or driven from the field.

Unfortunately for Wallace it was at this point that John Comyn decided that it was time to leave, as did most of the Scottish cavalry leaving Wallace with just his infantry to face the English army. Even more unfortunately for Wallace, Edward had brought along his own secret weapon; Welsh longbowmen.

Whereas the schiltron had proved to be a successful new tactic in withstanding cavalry charges, with his archers fled and his cavalry gone what remained of Wallace's army were now sitting ducks trapped behind their walls of spears. Edward brought forth his Welsh archers who simply shot arrows at point blank range into the ranks of the Scots. They picked off one schiltron at a time, reducing each one to a pile of corpses.

They fell like blossoms in an orchard when the fruit has ripened
is how one contemporary chronicler poetically described the event.

Once the archers had finished their work there was time for one final cavalry charge across the field to hack down any survivors.

Aftermath and Consequences

The total Scottish dead as a result of the battle are estimated at around 7,000 to 8,000 men, the English around a hundred. But Wallace himself and a few of his supporters managed to escape into the woods, much to Edward's annoyance one presumes. Wallace resigned as Guardian of the Realm 5 and it is believed went abroad to France to drum up support for the cause.

Despite however, the overwhelming nature of his victory at Falkirk, Edward I failed to make much further progress in crushing the rebellion in 1298. He was back in Carlisle by the end of the year and it took a number of years of further campaigning before the revolt sparked by William Wallace was successfully pacified.

Perhaps most importantly, the battle of Falkirk was one of the first demonstrations of the awesome firepower of the longbow and its potentially devastating effects on the enemy. This was a lesson that was well learnt by the English, and deployed with continued success during their subsequent wars with both the Scottish and the French. In fact the battle of Falkirk started something of a trend in Scotland-England conflicts, as pitched battles between the two seemed to consist entirely of the routine slaughter of thousands of Scots at the hands of the longbowmen.


NOTES

1 Both William Wallace and Andrew Moray were appointed as Guardian of the Realm after the battle of Stirling Bridge but Andrew Moray died shortly after the battle from his wounds leaving William Wallace as sole Guardian.

2 Not that Edward I seemed bothered by this; "Let them do so, let them go over to my enemies. I hope soon to see the day when I shall chastise them both" was his reported reaction to this threat. Although as things turned out, he might have had grave cause to regret it, had his Welsh archers fought on the side of Wallace.

3 Specifically John Stewart of Bonhill, John Grahame of Abercorn and Dundaff; the Earl of Fife, Duncan MacDuff and John Comyn, alias Red Comyn.

4 it is believed that William Wallace, had no prior knowledge of classical warfare and simply re-invented the concept independently.

5 William Wallace was replaced as Guardian by the triumvirate of William Lamberton the Bishop of St. Andrews, Robert the Bruce and the John Comyn who had fled from the battlefield.


SOURCES

The Battle Of Falkirk And The Execution Of Wallace by Robert M. Gunn at www.scotwebshops.com/history/features/falkirk/

plus the following articles on the battle
www.angelfire.com/nh/Scotland/battleoffalkirk.html
http://www.scotclans.com/clans/1298.htm

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