The Battle of Falkirk | The End of the Beginning

The Battle of Falkirk

The Battle of Falkirk, which took place on the 22nd July 1298, is one of the most famous battles of the Scottish Wars of Independence.

In the year prior, Scots under the charge of William Wallace and Andrew de Moray famously defeated a numerically-superior force at the Battle of Stirling Bridge.

The euphoria of victory would be short-lived, however. And at the Battle of Falkirk, Wallace and the Scots would go toe-to-toe with a far different animal to the one they previously encountered on the banks of the River Forth.

Reasserting Control

Having recently returned from campaigning in mainland Europe, King Edward I of England sought to address the problem lying to his north. The defeat at Stirling Bridge had dented English pride and thrown Edward’s attempts to dominate mainland Britain into a degree of turmoil.

In response, Edward I assembled a new, much larger force to march north into Scotland. This army is believed to have been comprised of around 12,000 infantry, supported by more than 2,000 mounted troops.

Crucially, we will find, this force included a variety of battle-hardened veterans from Edward’s campaigns in Flanders. In particular, Welsh longbowmen would play a key role in the fight to come.

Marching north into Scotland in the Summer of 1298, the English force found it would be difficult to engage the Scots in a pitched battle. Under the command of Wallace, the Scots drew the English deeper into the Scottish Lowlands and what is now the Central Belt; using scorched earth tactics along the way.

Historical records suggest the scorched earth policy employed by Wallace nearly succeeded. Shortages of food and supplies caused widespread discontent in the English army and, while in pursuit of the Scots, Edward considered abandoning the whole affair.

On July 21st, however, a ray of hope emerged for the English monarch. Scouts reported that Wallace’s force had camped near the River Carron near Falkirk. It was here that Edward finally caught up with Wallace and forced the Scots into a pitched battle.

On the morning of the 22nd July, Wallace may have considered his options. With a forced comprised of around 5,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry, the odds were stacked against them. Despite the grim

However, the Scots held high ground to the south of Falkirk and positioned themselves behind marshy ground in an attempt to stifle the movements of the formidable English mounted knights. At Stirling Bridge in 1297, English cavalry had been rendered useless in the boggy terrain and the Scots capitalised on the situation to great effect.

To counter the cavalry, Wallace divided the Scots army into four ‘schiltrons’ – a tightly-packed circular formation made up of pikemen – and sought to use the terrain to his advantage. Archers are also said to have been placed in between the schiltrons while the Scottish mounted troops were held in reserve.

Under the joint command of Humphrey de Bohun, the Earl of Hereford and Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, the English vanguard was keen to attack, advancing aggressively from the south. However, as with Stirling Bridge, marshy ground greatly restricted the vanguard’s movement, slowed the advance and forced this contingent to sweep right toward the Scots’ left flank.

Despite boggy ground, the Scots quickly found themselves with English troops to their flanks. The Scots cavalry, threatened by the advance of English cavalry on the right flank, fled the scene.

The English mounted knights were unable to pick up speed and charge the schiltrons effectively, however. And instead were limited to engaging the Scottish archers. Without the support of the Scots cavalry, and exposed in between the schiltron formations, these men were swiftly disposed of.

Edward realised it would be exceedingly difficult to tackle the Scots schiltron in such terrain. Several dozen horses were killed during attempts to penetrate the dense mass of pikes.

To break the Scots at Falkirk, Edward would deploy his longbowmen.

Superior Firepower

As Edward’s archers advanced and positioned themselves at Falkirk, little did the Scots know that they were to become the first of many victims over the next two centuries.

The longbow would, in the years following, become one of the iconic medieval weapons.  On a number of occasions, the longbow would prove to be a devastating weapon of war. At Agincourt in 1415, it is famed for having played a key role in the English victory.

At the Battle of Falkirk, the longbow would prove its worth. The schiltrons were no match for the onslaught of projectiles. Tightly packed into their formation, with no way to protect themselves and with nowhere to run, the hail of arrows rained down on the Scots, inflicting a terrible toll.

Supported by crossbowmen from Gascony, the longbowmen wore down the Scots formations while footsoldiers advanced steadily. With the schiltrons adequately worn down, the English mounted knights cascades into the Scots, supplemented by footsoldiers.

The fighting was visceral and quickly descended into chaos for the Scots, with English cavalry pursuing them relentlessly as many began to flee. The Lanercost Chronicle notes that, while the battle quickly descended into chaos for the Scots, many “stood their ground and fought manfully.”

Other contemporary records of the battle, most famously the account of William Rishanger, stated that the Scots “fell like blossoms in an orchard where the fruit has ripened”.

The Aftermath

After the catastrophe at Falkirk, the Wallace resigned as Guardian of Scotland and fled into hiding. He would spend the next several years fighting a tit-for-tat guerrilla campaign, frequently evading English capture.

Seven years later in 1305, Wallace was captured and handed over to the English by a Scottish knight, John de Menteith.

The year following would mark another significant moment in Scottish history. 1306 saw Robert the Bruce rebel against English occupation and mount a campaign that would eventually culminate in the Battle of Bannockburn eight years later.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s