Stirling Bridge: Scotland’s Hour

September 11th is, in the modern mind, often associated with the ghastly events that occurred in New York, and rightly so. However this day also marks the moment in which Scotland rose to the challenge of English might and achieved a crushing victory over their oppressive neighbours.

The years preceding this event are marked with treachery, political intrigue and squabbling between Scotland’s nobility. A nation left leaderless and desperate for direction, it would take a figure of monumental stature to drag the nation out of the dirt.

This figure however was neither a grand noble, nor a man in the typical mould of leader; He was the second son of a minor noble, an alleged brigand, and a man hellbent on justice.

His name was William Wallace.

The legend of Wallace has been embellished and altered over the passing centuries. What we do know of him is overshadowed by the grandiose tales and ballads written in his honour. He is, it seems, one of these characters that pops up throughout history and changes the shape of our world as we know it.

By all means we should never have heard of William Wallace, but his personality seems to separate him from other Scottish figures of the era. A vagabond, a renegade with a searing passion for his country. From what we know, he is incredibly loyal and a shrude tactician with a penchant for bloodshed – Were it aimed at the appropriate individuals.

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By 1297 Scotland was, to all intents and purposes, an occupied nation. Atrocities at the hands of English occupiers were widespread, and following the nations defeat at Dunbar in 1296, Scotland was utterly defenceless. Wallace’s rise to power signifies not only the nations willingness to resist, but also highlights the lack of confidence in Scotland’s nobility to do so on its behalf.

Nobles pay homage to Edward I and English tax collectors rampage across the countryside plundering villages, towns and homesteads of all material wealth. The nation needed a symbol, and who better than Wallace?

His appearance on the scene brings him to the forefront of Scotland’s resistance, his greatest hour would be Stirling Bridge.

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With King Edward I preoccupied in France he dispatches one of his most prominent noblemen, the Earl of Surrey, to quell Scottish dissent. Aided by Hugh de Cressingham, Edwards appointed Treasurer for Scotland, they marched deep into Scottish territory with the intention of utterly crushing Scottish resistance.

All eyes are focused on Stirling Bridge, with contemporary sources claiming the English force to be 9000 strong, far outmatching the Scottish rabble, which numbers anywhere between three and six thousand.

We’ve all seen the film adaptation of these events, which any right-minded Scot will cringe at. The Holywood adaptation portrays this event as a pitched battle in a chivalric form; Two armies lined up in an organised fashion ready to bludgeon and butcher each other.

This is as far from the truth as possible however. Furthermore, Wallace is not the sole commander of this Scottish army, he is aided by Andrew de Moray, a highland nobleman who also sought to rid Scotland of its English occupiers.

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Gathered on the Abbey Craig, a nearby hill, Scottish troops would have likely gasped in awe at the scale of the English force approaching from Stirling Castle. How could they possibly hope to counter the might of English heavy horse? They were the medieval equivalent of a Panzer tank brigade; Simply unstoppable.

Wallace and Moray had absolutely no intention of fighting a pitched battle however. They weren’t knights who valued the chivalry of the time, they were guerrilla fighters, hardy scrappers who’d do anything to win this fight, and that’s precisely what they would do.

The area surrounding the bridge was a tumultuous mixture of open grassland and boggy marshes. The river forth regularly flooded the surrounding area which made swift manoeuvring near impossible for any force. Wallace and Moray would use this to their advantage and waited for English troops to move across the bridge – which was so narrow that only two horses abreast could move across – and once there was an adequate number, they would strike.

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With a single blast of a horn, Scottish troops rampaged down from the Abbey Craig and headlong into the disorganised rabble that was the English host. Unable to break out of their enclosed position, and with men from behind penning them in, the resulting scrap was a vicious, bloody affair, and nothing short of a massacre.

Heavy English horses could barely move, with the boggy ground beneath their hooves turning the very earth into a blood soaked soup. The Scots slashed and cut at the legs and underbellies of the horses and once the heavily clad men atop of them fell, they were done for.

A bloody battle of attrition would unfold, and time was of the essence for the Scots, with the English commanders desperately forcing men across the bridge, the odds would slowly turn against them. But fate would smile upon them on this day, with the sheer number of men passing across the bridge begins to buckle under the weight of man and horse.

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Accounts from the time detail that the bridge crumbles at several points, plunging those crossing into the deep waters of the River Forth. If you were in the water, you were done for. Clad in armour and heavy padding there would be no hope to resurface and dozens are said to have met this grizzly end.

For the men trapped on the opposite side, death was certain. Wallace had no intention of showing quarter to the English force and Hugh de Cressingham dies fighting, his comrade the Earl of Surrey sounds a full retreat, knowing all too well that any attempt to cross the river at other points would result in further losses.

This is a monumental victory for the Scots, and one that is still taught in Schools across the country to this day. In the months following however there were two narratives in play; Scotland had won by any means, and emboldened by their victory they would continue to grow in strength and confidence. Wallace is named high protector of Scotland and begins a campaign in the north of England – Scotland would take the fight to the English.

On the other hand, Scotland’s honour was questioned. Traditions of the time dictated that armies would allow each other to form up and prepare for the coming violence. Wallace and Moray disregarded these traditions and slaughtered the English host with little to no care for their actions.

The subsequent raids in the north of England are met with criticism by both English and Scottish scholars alike. Wallace is said to have skinned Hugh de Cressingham and used his skin as a sheathe for his sword – Whether or not this is factually correct or embellishment by future commentators is debated. But what we do know is that the violence seen in northern England at the hands of Wallace and his men is nothing short of ethnic cleansing.

Entire towns and villages, even monasteries are plundered. Wallace is said to have laughed and bayed while English monks were drowned in wells.

Was he a maniac hellbent on the murder of all Englishmen, or simply a product of his time? In reality, Wallace was carrying out actions no different to those his English counterparts had done in previous years.

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As the saying goes, “one mans terrorist is another mans freedom fighter” and Wallace is seen as the living embodiment of Scotland’s will to resist oppression, but on the other hand a glimpse into the violent nature of men of the time.

The fact that Wallace is still remembered today speaks volumes about the man he was. His personality and his actions pluck at the heartstrings of many Scots and he is seen as a symbol of resistance across the globe.

He is the perfect hero in many senses; A man of minor stock, with a burning loyalty toward his country and people. Loyal to the core and despite meeting the ghastliest of ends, he remains true to himself and the cause with his dying breaths.

Over the course of time his story has been embellished beyond belief. His story has had romantic arks added to it, he is portrayed as an almost herculean figure. He was however, simply a man and a product of his time; Hard, violent and inspiring. His efforts would embolden Scots in the coming years, particularly Robert Bruce.

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