Stirling Bridge


By Gallowglass

Introduction

"By the name our fathers gave her, Our steel shall drink the crimson stream, We'll all her dearest right redeem, Our own broadswords shall save her"

Although the line "It's been broken in fine! I reared up because you shot it in the leg!" is several centuries after the horse which bore the weight of Alexander III on that stormy, wild night in Fife, it would have given the king some sound advice. Basically, don't trust horses. The one he was riding that night on the 18th of March, 1286, famously careered over the edges of cliffs near Kinghorn, Fife, and early the next morning he was found mangled with his horse, his loving wife of five months beside herself with grief. But it would appear that he was not the only person that fell in mid-gallop. For, as his horse lost its footing in the furious gales, it took the sovereignty of an already ancient nation with it. Or so it appeared.

Alexander III, Alasdair mac Alasdair

Crowned, as with many kings of Scotland, at Scone, at an early age, Alexander was the only son of Alexander II (hence the patronymic in Gaelic: mac Alasdair) and his second wife, Marie de Coucy, who married Alexander II at Roxburgh on May 15th, two years before their son was born, also at Roxburgh.

Alexander III was crowned at eight. He proved to be one of many Scottish kings who had an eye for the ladies, and it is ironic in that the Lanercost Chronicler notes that not even 'rocky cliffs' could bar him from the presence of 'matrons and nuns, virgins and widows, sometimes in disguise.'

The only thing of much note he did, besides clash briefly, as many did, with the Lordship of the Isles in the west, was convince the Estates to recognise Margaret, the Maid of Norway, or the Virgin of Norway. She was an infant, which would explain why she was also a virgin.

It was not long being Edward I of England used this to his advantage... the first part, at least.

Hammer of the Scots... in theory

This is one of the few people who have invaded Scotland that I can look out without bias. He was an opponent worthy of respect, who ended up almost literally in his saddle to ride out against Scotland again when old age meant the end of his campaign. But in 1286 he was in his late thirties, a veteran soldier, with much military experience either from a book or from the battlefield. Who am I talking about? History records him as the Hammer of the Scots, a title which was almost his by right, or as Edward I of England, although actually, if my knowledge of English kings doesn't need refreshing, the fourth of that name to rule said country. He was also Dominus Hibernie (Lord of Ireland), and Duke of Aquitaine.

Famed for conquering a great deal of Wales in England's name, and almost, mostly through cunning politics, managing to annex Scotland. A crusader, which meant he was almost killed by a member of an order of assassins, known as the hashashim (the similarity between their job title and their name is no coincidence), also meant he was one of the finest, if not the finest, general England has ever seen.

Single-minded and ruthless, there was no better man to crush a race seen as being the same.

Oh, of course Edward started it

Ah. Actually, no. In a way it was the Scots who were to blame. You see, centuries before all of this, a number of the early Pictish-Scottish kings had sworn homage and vassalship to Northumbrians and Saxon kings of England, after some of the major defeats that were mixed in amongst the victories. Since the Scots ignored this in later centuries, the English cannot really be blamed for forsaking the Union of Crowns which saw them put in much the same position. If you look, you'll see Scotland's history is much a repetition of itself.

It is apparent that Edward knew of the earlier treaties, though, and was waiting for the kingdom to the north to become weakened by internal conflict. A situation that was inevitable with Scotland having such a young king, and very powerful nobles, the Comyns and the Justiciar of Scotia almost waging open warfare to settle their feud.

With Bruce and Balliol as the main two of no less than thirteen claimants to the throne upon little Margaret's failure to reach Scotland, the government appealed to Edward to be the judge. Might as well appeal to the executioner.

Edward supported the man who did indeed have the stronger claim, which was not Robert the Bruce, but Balliol. John Balliol, Lord of Galloway through the maternal line. He is essentially an important nonentity in all of this.

Anyway, if my argument earlier to this being a problem made by Scotland itself wasn't sufficient to convince you, try this: a Scottish army swarmed south and plundered northern England.

Longshanks pulls his socks up

As with much of the Borderlands, what was formerly Scottish territory is now in English hands. The fertile lands around the Tweed, particularly around its mouth, is probably the most famous example.

Visiting the town today, you'll see the flags on the border, a few inns, and long, sandy beaches, a quaint little English town which would probably be better off down near Brighton or on north Cornwall coasts.

But on the 30th of March, a decade after Alexander III fell from the cliffs to the year, Edward of England retaliated against the Scots raid. He was a great general, as I've said. This is undoubted. But, like many great generals have been, he was a tyrant. The Scots raid may have just been a typical raid into Northumberland, but even so it gave Edward the pretext for war.

Berwick-upon-Tweed, which at the time was a Scottish town looking down at its hopeless competitor, Newcastle, the prominent port in England, was systematically sacked, it's merchants and their families massacred in cold blood. The port was razed, as was much of the town, and it was only raised from the ashes as a fortified outpost, one of many wooden castles Edward I would raise in Scotland, much as William the Conqueror had done when he sailed across from Normandy.

The Scots were north of Dunbar as the sky burned red to the south, and in April Edward send John de Warenne with a contingent of cavalry to capture the castle. Their mission was basically to get there as quickly as possible. The Earl of Dunbar was pro-English, after all. What could possibly go wrong?

More than domestic

Patrick's wife was more than happy to help out in her own little way. Or, actually, not such a little way. She had good intentions, but was responsible for the defeat at Dunbar, which is probably the worst-fought battle in Scottish history, when she opened the gates of the fortress to King John Balliol's army. Her husband was clearly elsewhere at the time... or was not as pro-English as thought. He was accepted as a friend by William Wallace soon after the rebel appeared from Selkirk Forest.

But before all this, Edward had to make his rivals look ridiculous. He humiliated Balliol at Montrose, throwing his coat-of-arms to the ground, and pillaging Lia Fall, or the Stone of Scone, to give its English name (Stane o Scone in Scots) from, unsurprisingly, Scone Palace. It would actually lead to royalty's embarrassment in 1952, when it was stolen from the coronation chair in Westminster Abbey by four students, who then ruined their victory by accusing the wrong dynasty of taking it.

But that is besides the point. Balliol was useless. An English viceroy was appointed to the former Scottish kingdom, and Edward's quote was proven: 'a man does good business when he rids himself of a turd.'

William Wallace

A minor noble, he was the son of a tenant of the Steward, Sir Malcolm Wallace of Elderslie, and Margaret Wallace. Not much of his early life is known, besides the fact that he held a deep resentment for the English, unlike most of the major nobles who had long owned vast amounts of land in Scotland and England.

Legend says that his sweetheart was captured for helping the man, already outlawed for whatever reason, supposedly the murder of an English soldier, escape, and was executed. Wallace was to take sweet revenge, hiding with his own merry men in Selkirk Forest, the northern Sherwood, famed for concealing bandits and guerrillas.

He fell upon and slaughtered the sheriff and his guard to a man. And knew there was little the English could do about it. A dark warrior for a dark time, as it is put, he raised the flag of rebellion, and the avenging curse of the Plantagenets was taken by the throat. And Wallace was not entirely alone.

Andy Moray

Andrew Moray, Moray being where the territorial clan name Murray comes from, was a staunch supporter of Wallace. He raised his forces, as Wallace rallied Selkirk, and it all snowballed from there.

Naturally, their actions lit the spirit of revenge which had never really gone away. Although Wallace was brutal, putting villages on both Scottish and English soil to the sword in due time, Edward had proven that he could be worse.

James Stewart and a former governor of Berwick, Sir William Douglas, as well as many nobles including the previously mentioned Earl of Dunbar threw in their arms with Wallace.

Even Robert the Bruce was amongst these nobles, sent by Balliol, believing him to be a loyal supporter instead of a solely self-serving man, to besiege Douglas's stronghold. He decided to take a little wander, and found himself and his soldiers a nice place to sleep in the rebel camp, a wise move which would one day place him on the Scottish throne.

Now Wallace was more than a bandit. He was a warlord. He chased the Bishop of Durham from Glasgow, and overran English garrisons. Edward's 'turd' was not fully out of his system.

Stirling Bridge

John de Warenne was now the commander of English forces in Scotland, along with the treasurer, Hugh Cressingham. It would be unfair to say the John was a particularly poor general. He was a veteran of rebellion in England and the conquest of Wales, and although he was aging he was probably still an able, if lethargic, commander.

But he was not the best with perception, having never thought rebels would appear in Scotland, and enjoying a life of luxury as the Earl of Surrey. Hugh Cressingham was the chief tax collector. His modern equivalent would probably be cracking lobsters and swilling champagne rather than fighting on any battlefield.

So, Wallace and his soldiers, from Moray, Aberdeenshire, Kincardineshire, Angus, Perthsire, and basically the whole sweep of northeastern Scotland and a few contingents of Highlanders, were free to do as they pleased, only having to battle local garrisons as they plundered their own countryside. But it was obvious that he would head for Stirling and its grand castle, and fertile land ready to burn to deprive English armies of supplies, the famed 'scorched earth' tactic which ravished the Borderlands and the fertile lands between the Clyde and Forth many times.

When John and Hugh found William, he had already arranged his soldiers, mostly over Abbey Craig, near the castle, where the Wallace Monument now stands. His army was facing south, with a raised causeway amongst boggy marshland running to the wooden bridge, probably upstream of the one which stands now. To Wallace's left was a loop in the river.

You take the high road

John and Hugh could agree on nothing. Hugh sent soldiers back to minimise expenditure, and John could not be persuaded to do anything about that or Wallace because of his lazyness. He chose a bad time for a mid-life crisis. Expecting Wallace to surrender, he was genuinely astounded when his diplomats came back with nothing.

His initial, and only, strategy plan, was an attack across the river, but Cressingham disagreed, thinking it would somehow cost too much, although probably not, for once, in money, but more the loyalty of the knights.

The bridge was not wide enough for two men-at-arms to cross, and was wooden. Nonetheless, the two generals were eventually persuaded to fight, but overslept, and shattered their only real plan in spectacular style.

They gave the men conflicted orders when the finally did resolve to cross after all, and heavily armoured soldiers were sent across the river, probably to test the bridge, but continued to march along the causeway.

This was a ridiculous display of over-confidence, and it served only to turn the causeway and the marshes around it into a slaughtering ground for the frenzied Scots, where Welsh, English, and Scottish blood commingled amongst the flora, as the English army was cut in two in more ways than one.

The Welsh fled the field, probably having been waiting for an opportunity to do so, and, being the only soldiers in the contingent sent across the bridge that could swim, did so. The knights fought on, and a few reached safety, but most were unhorsed and slain. Cressingham was amongst those cut down, and was famously flayed.

Surrey and his bloodied, battered contingent escaped, with Sir Marmaduke Tweng holding Stirling Castle against the rebels.

Scottish casualties were very few indeed. Amongst them, however, was the valiant Moray, wounded and taken from the field. Nevertheless, he had fought in the battle that wiped away the tears of Dunbar and English rule, and Wallace became Guardian of Scotland, serving from 1298 and making sure that Northumberland, Cumberland, and Durham suffered greatly for the chaos their king had caused.

And, even with Falkirk's fame on the edges of Callendar Wood, the Scots rebel cause was not lost. William had inspired many men. Amongst them was Robert the Bruce, who would throw off English conquest from Scottish soil forever, no matter what popular myth today is.

Edward getting rid of his turd is probably the only mythical toilet humour in history.