“We come here with no peaceful intent, but ready for battle, determined to avenge our wrongs and set our country free. Let your masters come and attack us: we are ready to meet them beard to beard.”
These are the (apparent) words of William Wallace (Uilleam Uallas), the resistance leader, knight and Guardian of Scotland during the Scottish Wars of Independence. The quote is attributed to him on the eve of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, which happens to have happened 717 years ago today (11/09/1297), in which Scottish forces under Andrew de Moray and Wallace led an incredible victory over the English army on the waters of the River Forth. The Battle is one of the most incredible battles to take place in the history of the British Isles, and is one of the most famous examples of the Scottish “Underdog” victories over the English during the First War of Independence, a particular chapter of Scottish history I’m fascinated by. Unfortunately, horribly inaccurate and over-simplified depictions of Wallace and this battle in particular is all too pervasive, so I thought for the anniversary I’d look at both the men in charge and the battle, and maybe show you a glimpse of why Scottish history is so much more incredible, bloody, brutal and strange than anything you’d ever find in Game of Thrones. First, let’s look at the big men in charge- William Wallace (obviously) and the under-regarded often forgotten partner in crime: Andrew de Moray.
Wallace: The Mountain That Flays
Now, Wallace’s speech on all things freedom and facial hair comes from the book History of Scotland written in 1841, and marks a familiar pattern of the dubious accuracy of quotes, facts and descriptions attributed to Wallace, especially considering the romanticism of Scottish figures by writers of such histories through the centuries and how little we actually know of the real William Wallace. Even his birth is hard to pin down, with dates ranging over a period of 18 years, from 1260 to 1278. His father is generally taken to be Sir Malcolm Wallace of Elderslie in Paisley, however Wallace’s seal on the “Lubeck Letter”, the letter Wallace and Andrew Murray (yes, this is the same Andrew de Moray, but it appears to be a different spelling) sent as Guardians of Scotland in 1297 says “William, son of Alan Wallace”. An Alan Wallace does exist on the Ragman’s Roll, a list of landowners who swore loyality to The King of England Edward I in 1296, meaning Wallace’s father, as well as his place of birth are all called into question. Even his marriage to Marion Braidfute, so famously touted as his reason for rebellion and killing of the Earl of Lannark in Braveheart, is hard to prove. We know that he had two brothers, Malcolm and John, and that John died in London though a similar fate to Wallace. Nonetheless, Wallace’s quote shows us two things- Wallace was clearly regarded a leader of the Scottish forces during the battle, and apparently lived in a time when beards were pretty darn fashionable.
“He was a tall man with the body of a giant, cheerful in appearance with agreeable features, broad-shouldered and big-boned, with belly in proportion and lengthy flanks, pleasing in appearance but with a wild look, broad in the hips, with strong arms and legs, a most spirited fighting-man, with all his limbs very strong and firm.” – Passage of the Scotichronicon, 14th century
It becomes clear from descriptions of Wallace that he struck an imposing figure, with some accounts claiming Wallace to be as tall as 6 foot 7, a giant of a man by even today’s standards, even more so 700 years ago when the average height was about 5 foot 8. Another source of evidence comes from his purported sword, “The Wallace Sword“, which hangs on display in the National Wallace Monument in Stirling. The sword is a Scottish Claymore (claidheamh-mòr), and at 5 feet 8 inches (ie. the height of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall!) and weighting over 6 pounds (that’s the weight of 6 labrador puppies!), it strikes as an imposing example of how big Wallace may have been. Now, like everything Wallace related, the authenticity of this sword is very dubious, with many parts having been replaced and gone missing since its “discovery”, such as the distinctive claymore hilt and the legendary belt (or baldric) and scabbard which were apparently made from the flayed skin of Hugh De Cressingham, the hated English Treasurer for Scotland that was killed at the Battle of Stirling Bridge (we’ll get to that later). Authentic or not however, it adds to the idea that Wallace struck an imposing figure, an obvious leader and not to mention metal as fuck.
“You might know me by a different name…. MORAY.” “Who?!” “… Moray, man… come on…”
By 1297, the English were in a bad shape when it came to their grasp of Scotland. The country was in open revolt, and various leaders had risen up to challenge English rule. Most notable of these but so often overlooked when considered next to Wallace, was Andrew de Moray. The Morays were a prominent and affluent family who controlled lands of Moray on the North East of the country. The Morays had been a thorn in the side of many royal families and had vigorously resisted Royal rule from the Kingdom of Scotland in the past. They commanded significant power, wealth and influence during the 13th century. Both Andrew and his father, Sir Andrew de Moray of Petty were both captured after the Battle of Dunbar between the Kingdom of Scotland and England in April 1296. Andrew the younger escaped captivity in Chester castle in winter 1296-97. He returned to his fathers castle in Avoch and gathered troops in support of John Balliol, who had been abdicated after the Battle of Dunbar. This act of defiance of English rule, as well as Wallace’s murder of the Sheriff of Lanark, marked to two important flash points in the Scottish revolt. As the rebellion in Scotland began to take hold, Moray became involved in several clashes and confrontations with Edward’s men, creating a firestorm of violence and rebellion spreading throughout Scotland. Castles under English rule were ceased, with Moray seizing control of the North of the country as Wallace rampaged through the Central Scotland in a whirlwind of violent raids and confrontations. By late summer 1297 it was more than clear England’s rule over Scotland was in name only. Hugh de Cressingham (future belt of William Wallace), wrote in a letter to Edward in 1297:
“by far the greater part of your counties of the realm of Scotland are still unprovided with keepers, as [they have been killed or imprisoned]; and some have given up their bailiwicks, and others neither will nor dare return; and in some counties the Scots have established and placed bailiffs and ministers, so that no county is in proper order, excepting Berwick and Roxburgh, and this only lately.”
Edward, currently at war in France was furious with both the Scottish revolt and raising of flags against his throne, as well as the failure of Scottish lords and English forces to put down the rebellion. Edward in a clever move appealed to Moray; proposing a release of Andrew’s father from imprisonment to serve in the ranks of the English army in Flanders, if his son was prepared to take his father’s place as a royal hostage. Whether Moray refused or simply did not get the message is not known, as his campaign against English rule continued unabated and Moray’s father was never released. Eventually The King’s Lieutenant, the Earl of Surrey, realising he had underestimated the Scottish forces gathered an army to deal with Moray and Wallace. Wallace and Moray upon hearing this, abandoned their siege of Dundee castle, the only remaining castle north of the Forth in English hands, mustered their forces and left to meet the English, leaving the siege in the hands of Dundee’s townsfolk.
As you can see, Andrew de Moray is clearly not the man to be overlooked in this partnership. The fact that little is known of Moray in both appearance or quotes attributed to him goes to show that Wallace was the clearly the more romantic warrior of the two, who captivated the hearts and ideals of Scottish rebellion and tenacity for centuries to come. Wallace is portrayed storming Scotland on a bloodthirsty, revenge driven campaign to rid Scotland of English rule from a ‘grassroots working mans’ perspective. If we can drag this back to a Braveheart comparison (as much as I hate to), Moray fits more into Robert the Bruce’s character in the film, a man of a higher social class that leads through family status and traditional pitched battle experience in a quest for power and duty within the prominent Moray family (this is not to say Bruce wasn’t active at the time, he had in fact just turned against English rule to follow the Scottish cause just before The Battle of Stirling Bridge, contrary to what Braveheart portrayed). Moray’s goal was about seizure and control of Scottish lands, while Wallace’s path of destruction represented the more popular and obvious acts of rebellion in the name of the Scottish people. The two together thus make a perfect pairing, with Wallace being a face of the unstoppable force of common folk in revolt, and Moray representing the more organised rebellion to restore king John Balliol and the Kingdom of Scotland.
The Slaughter of Stirling Bridge.
There is a lot of misinformation and fiction surrounding the Battle of Stirling Bridge, and the facts of the battle are very, very hard to pin down. Blind Harry’s (whose poem on Wallace is the basis of much of the ‘Braveheart Legend’) account of the battle is one of the most cited and referenced accounts (despite being written over 170 years after Wallace’s death), and much of it is quite clearly fictionalised and exaggerated. We know that on the English side stood roughly 10,000 men (however numbers range from 8,000-13,000, or a pretty ridiculous 50,000 in Blind Harry’s account), under the command of John de Warenne, the 6th Earl of Surrey and our man of the moment, Hugh de Cressingham. Out of this impressive force, over a third were mounted cavalry, as well as a significant number of skilled English and Welsh archers. The army was well armed and confident, sure of their abilities and certain of a victory. The Scots army was feeble in comparison. Comprised of foot soldiers gathered from across the country, they numbered less than 3000 men, probably only a tenth of which were made up of cavalry and a handful of archers. Much of the army was comprised of “lesser” ranks of society- a result of many Scottish nobles and lords being held captive after successive defeats by the English. They were not however, the rabble of untrained soldiers of earlier conflicts that the English so surely believed them to be. Moray and Wallace had their forces drilled and under strict command, and confident in their abilities.
Something our award-winning drama Braveheart famously left out of their depiction of the Battle of Stirling Bridge was, well, the bridge. The English had few choices on where they could cross the deep and fast flowing River Forth, with no bridges or fords really suitable for crossing an entire army. Stirling Bridge was a small wooden crossing located near Stirling Castle (still in English hands) and was wide enough for only a couple of horses or men to cross side by side and shoulder to shoulder. It emptied onto a marshy and boggy Scottish side, with the river surrounding it and creating a natural bottleneck, something the Scottish intended to take full advantage of. Close to the Bridge was a ford that could allow sixty horse to cross at a time, however the plan to divert and cross at this ford was quashed by our resident mastermind and penny-pinching treasurer Cressingham, who was keen to avoid prolonging the battle at unnecessary expense.
The English delayed crossing by several days, attempting to negotiate under the impression that the Scots would surely surrender or make peace in face of the English force. surprised that they did not, the English began to cross the bridge. However, an initial force of Archers sent across were immediately recalled by a furious Warenne, who had overslept and not given the order himself. They were recalled, and a vanguard of over 5000 infantry and several hundred cavalry (including ol’ Hughy de) was then ordered over the bridge. This entire time the Scots, set up close by near Abbey Craig and hidden under the forests overlooking the river, bided their time.
It must have quite an eerie and unnerving sight for the English marching across the creaky bridge towards the Scottish side. They could probably see elements of the Scottish force on the hillside, but not the entire army who were obscured by the trees. The water beneath the river was fast flowing and deep, and the heavily laden knights and infantry didn’t dare think what might happen if they fell in. More likely, however, they were in high spirits- the Scottish force they faced was tiny, poorly armed and badly trained in comparison to them and past victories cemented a feeling of superiority over any Scottish force. On top off all this, many probably held onto the gentlemanly ideals of the Pitched Battle, the rules of war that medieval armies so often stuck to. An agreement in most battles was that both sides met before any conflict, exchanged negotiations and agreements in which some kind of truce could be brokered and a fight avoided. If none could be arranged, battle would take place. After hours of fighting, either victors were obvious and the defeated army was driven off, or a truce was made and both armies parted ways and limped home. It was a romantic image of ‘gentlemanly war’ of which there are numerous examples of parties breaking, however still represented a sort of unspoken ‘rule of engagement’ of a consensual, fair battle that both armies agreed to. The English were going into this fight no doubt expecting a similar arrangement, as such battles with the Scots had started and ended this way in the past. This however, was not Moray and Wallace’s plan and would set an example to the ineptitude of naive commanders and the advantage that would be taken over those who still held onto the idea of ‘gentlemanly war’. The Scots were waiting for “as many of the enemy had come over [the bridge] as they believed they could overcome”, and as the 5000 strong vanguard had all but crossed the Bridge, the Scots charged.
The true horror of the battle is very hard to picture, and the reality of thousands of deaths taking place over 700 years ago is also hard to take seriously, but the brutal slaughter the English were subjected to is pretty grim. The mounted cavalry, packed into the tight soft ground at the north side of the bridge were very vulnerable to the approaching Scottish front of long spears. Pushed further and further back, soon the bridgehead was cut off and the vanguard was surrounded, being packed closer and closer together and forced towards the water’s edge. Cavalrymen were dragged from their horses and hacked to death, while the packed infantry was slowly pushed back and cut down by the Scottish spears and archers. As it became clear that there was no way out, the English began to rout, with those that were able attempting to swim back across the river. Most drowned, either the currents or an inability to swim pulling them under, or the weight of armour and the crush of others behind stampeding them into the depths of the River Forth. From the English side, they could only watch in horror as their comrades were cut down in plain sight, unable to cross the bridge now controlled by the Scottish on the other side. Blind Harry’s account makes claim that the bridge collapsed under the weight of men and horses stampeding back over the bridge, but this can’t be confirmed. Despite all this chaos however, William Wallace still stuck out as a giant among men-
“On foot, and bearing a great sharp spear, Wallace went amongst the thickest of the press. he aimed a stroke at Cressingham in his corslet, which was brightly polished. The sharp head of the spear pierced right through the plates and through his body, stabbing him beyond rescue; thus was that chieftain struck down to death. With the stroke Wallace bore down both man and horse”
Cressingham, trapped with the other soldiers in the vice, was brutally killed. A chronicle at the time reported Wallace took “a broad strip [of Cressingham’s skin]…taken from the head to the heel, to make therewith a baldric for his sword.”. Pieces of Cressingham were cut up and taken as grizzly souvenirs by Scots:
“The Scots flayed him and divided his skin among themselves in moderate-sized pieces, certainly not as relics, but for hatred of him”
It’s unlikely any of the vanguard survived. Unable to run or even fight in such close quarters, over the course of a few hours the entire force was probably killed in the most horrible conditions imaginable. Warenne’s remaining army was still intact, however his nerves were shot. After the remaining knights had fled back across the bridge, he ordered it destroyed and abandoned Stirling Castle and it’s garrison, retreating for Berwick and leaving the Scottish Lowlands for the rebels.
The Dynamic Duo
The battle marked a turning point in the War of Independence, both in a shock to the English and a boost in confidence and support in Scotland. It’s unknown who planned the battle and who can take credit for the amazing ploy played by the Scottish, however the Battle of Stirling Bridge is interesting in its unconventional tactics displayed by the Scots. It was the genius of the Scots to take advantage of the arrogance and naivety of the English expecting a traditional pitched battle that led to such an amazing victory. Reading the events, it feels almost like the perfect melding of experience and tactics that the two leaders, Moray and Wallace, brought to the table. Moray’s knowledge and command of larger forces and experience with pitched battles against the English and Wallace’s notorious guerilla tactics and bold, brash and confident leadership all play a part in the battle and victory. Even more telling is the aftermath. It’s unknown how or when exactly Moray died, but it’s suggested that an injury sustained at the battle led to his death soon afterwards. This left Wallace in charge and, as we all know from Braveheart, his next meeting with the English was not nearly so successful. The Battle of Falkirk was a monumental defeat dealt by the English, and ultimately led to Wallace’s capture, trial and sentencing to death in London. Was his defeat because of a lack of knowledge of traditional pitched battles that Falkirk proved to be? Was it King Edwards clearly more knowledgeable command of the battle on the English side? Was Moray the key to the Scots victory at Stirling Bridge? We’ll never know, but one thing is for certain: Braveheart, Game of Thrones, you name it- none had the true genius, confidence, characters and unbelievable events of the Scottish Wars of Independence, and especially the events of the 11th of September 1297.
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