Battle of Stirling bridge
September 11, 1297
The Battle of Stirling Bridge was one of the series of conflicts of the Wars of Scottish Independence. On September 11, 1297 the forces of Andrew de Moray and William Wallace clashed with those of John de Warenne, 7th Earl of Surrey, and the English forces suffered defeat.
Although Scotland had been over-run by the English army in 1296 after the Battle of Dunbar, the country had been stunned rather than crushed.
By the spring of 1297 the sparks of resistance that had been glowing through the winter season burst into full scale rebellion. In May 1297 William Wallace, in the words of one English chronicler, 'raised his head.' His efforts in the south were echoed in the north of the country by Andrew de Moray. Some of the Scottish nobility also took to arms; but largely owing to political disunity quickly came to terms with the English at Irvine in July.
With the capitulation at Irvine the initiative passed to the 'common folk of the realm' led by Wallace and Moray: the middle people-freeholders and burgesses-whom Edward I would have taken to die in a foreign war. The two men first joined up sometime before the end of August 1297, and were jointly acknowledged by their followers as 'commanders of the army of the kingdom of Scotland and the community of the realm.'
With most of northern Scotland now under the control of the rebels, John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, Edward's plenipotentiary in the north, at last wakened to the danger. He joined Hugh de Cressingham, the Treasurer, at Berwick and advanced into central Scotland with a large force of infantry and cavalry, arriving at Stirling in early September.
Wallace and Moray came south to meet him, and took up position at the foot of the Abbey Craig, about a mile north of the narrow wooden bridge across the River Forth. The river crossing here, dominated by nearby Stirling Castle, was the most strategically vital in Scotland. Below Stirling the river was too deep and wide to cross, and to the west lay the impassible marsh known as Flanders Moss.
Stirling Bridge served as a belt, tying the north and south of Scotland together. In view of what happened at Dunbar the previous year there were clear risks in facing English cavalry in open battle; but Wallace and Moray had to deny Surrey this crossing or risk losing all they had gained in the north.
The troops at their disposal were infantrymen, armed principally with twelve-foot long spears. In all respects their army was inferior to the grand feudal host gathering on the plain below them to the south of the river. There is no solid information about the size of the Scottish army, but it is generally believed to have been rather smaller than the English force.
Surrey had won a comfortable victory over the aristocracy of Scotland at Dunbar, and his belief that he was now dealing with a rabble seems to have affected his judgement. The bridge at Stirling was only broad enough to allow two horsemen to cross abreast. With the Scots placed in a commanding position dominating the soft, flat ground to the north of the river the dangers were obvious. Sir Richard Lundie, a Scots knight who joined the English after the capitulation at Irvine, offered to outflank the enemy by leading a cavalry force over a nearby ford, where sixty horsemen could cross at the same time. Cressingham, anxious to avoid any unnecessary expense in prolonging the war, persuaded the earl to reject this sound advice and order a direct attack across the bridge.
The Scots waited as the English knights and infantry made their slow progress across the bridge on the morning of 11 September. The arrogant and disorderly host of 1296 was gone: Wallace and Moray's hold over their men was firm. They held back earlier in the day when many of the English and Welsh archers had crossed, only to be recalled because Surrey had overslept. The two commanders now waited, according to the Chronicle of Hemingburgh, until as many of the enemy had come over as they believed they could overcome. Then the attack was ordered. The Scots spearmen came down from the high ground in rapid advance towards Stirling Bridge, quickly seizing control of the English bridgehead. Surrey's vanguard was now cut off from the rest of the army. The heavy cavalry to the north of the river was trapped and cut to pieces, their comrades to the south powerless to help. Only one knight, the Yorkshire man, Sir Marmaduke Tweng, showed great presence of mind and managed to fight his way through the thicket of spears back across the bridge; but over a hundred of his fellow knights were slain, including the portly Cressingham, whose body was subsequently flayed and the skin cut into small pieces as tokens of the victory. Losses among the infantry, many of them Welsh, were also high. Those who could threw off their armour and swam across the river.
Surrey, who had remained to the south of the river, was still in a strong position. The bulk of his army still remained intact and he could have held the line of the Forth, denying the triumphant Scots a passage to the south. But his confidence was gone. After Tweng's escape he ordered the bridge destroyed and retreated towards Berwick, leaving the garrison at Stirling Castle isolated and abandoning the Lowlands to the rebels. James, the High Steward of Scotland, and Malcolm, earl of Lennox, whose forces had been part of Surrey's army, observing the carnage to the north of the bridge, withdrew. Afterwards they attacked the English baggage train, killing many of the fleeing soldiers.
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- Ferguson, J., William Wallace: Guardian of Scotland., 1948.
- Nicholson, R., Scotland-the Later Middle Ages, 1974.
- Prestwich, M., The Three Edwards: War and State in England, 1272-1277, 1980.