The Battle of Falkirk, which took place on the 22nd July 1298, is one of the most famous battles of the Wars of Scottish 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 sweet taste 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.
Having recently returned from campaigning in mainland Europe, King Edward I of England sought to address the problem lying to his north. Defeat at Stirling Bridge had dented English pride and thrown Edward’s attempts to dominate mainland Britain into 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, 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.
However, on 21st July a ray of hope emerged for the English monarch. Scouts reported that Wallace’s force had camped alongside the River Carron near Falkirk. It was here that Edward finally caught up with Wallace and forced the Scots into a pitched battle.
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On the morning of the 22nd July, Wallace may have considered his options. With a forced comprised of around 5,000 infantrymen and roughly 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 seriously hindered in 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, famously fled the scene.
The English mounted knights were still 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, they 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.
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.
In years to come the longbow would become one of the iconic medieval weapons and was used to devastating effect. 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 foot soldiers advanced steadily. With the schiltrons adequately worn down, mounted knights cascaded into the Scots, supplemented by foot soldiers.
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 although the Scottish army rapidly disintegrated 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”.
After the Battle of 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.