Battle of Falkirk & Execution of Wallace


Battle of Falkirk & Execution of Wallace Pt.1

Part One

[Wallace's Letter]With the phenomenal success of Stirling Bridge under his belt, Sir William Wallace, Guardian of the Realm of Scotland, continued his campaign of guerilla warfare upon the Northern English counties. But he and Moray were also active in trying to restore trade between Scotland and Europe which had been nearly halted by English efforts. In a remarkable letter (pictured right), Wallace, acting as Guardian and Andrew De Moray tried to persaude German cities (Hamburg and Lubeck) to restore trade with the Scots declaring that "through battle, the Scots have been freed from the tryanny of the English".

In November 1297, after the battle of Stirling Bridge, Sir Andrew de Moray, Wallace's friend and right hand military advisor died of the terrible wounds he had received at Stirling Bridge. Wallace was now the sole Guardian of Scotland, holding it for Toom Tabard (John Balliol), meaning "empty coat". Whether or not Wallace actually supported Balliol, he was now alone in his fight to secure Scotlands freedom.

William Wallace from a Stained Glass
[Wallace Stained Glass] Throughout the rest of 1297, Wallace ravaged the Border land of England for corn and cattle. Such a turn of events wrenched Edward I back from his negotiations in France with King Philp. He transferred his headquarters to York. Now he would hammer the Scots. Feudal dues were called upon. Crossbowmen from Gascony and Welsh archers were recruited. So were foot soldiers from Ireland to serve in the English campaign.

De Warrenne, the Earl of Surrey and Sussex having failed at Stirling to stop Wallace, forced Edward to march north himself. He assembled at York the largest invasion force to enter Scotland since the days of Agricola. It consisted of perhaps as many as 2,500 heavily armoured knights and at least 12,500 infantry. Eight earls joined Edward: the Marshal, the Constable, Ralph de Monthemer, Arundel, Guy of Warwick and the young Earls of Lancaster and Pembroke, each bringing their own large contingents of minor knights and infantry, swelling his host to a monstrous size.

[Hammer of the Scots]
King Edward, in the month of June 1298, reviewed at Roxburgh his army, which consisted of 12,500 infantry, English, Welsh, and Irish, alongside a body of splendidly mounted and disciplined cavalry; the veterans of his French wars: 3,000 of these rode horses completely armoured from head to crupper, and some sources say there may have been as many as 4,000 light cavalry. In addition to these were 500 Life Guards from Gascony, nobly mounted and magnificiently accoutred. (Some figures according to Cassell's British Battles, 1897).

Edward Returns; Marches against Wallace

In the beginning of 1298 the hope and support from France ended bitterly for the Scots, with peace between Philip and Edward, and the Plantagenet came home from Gascony to deal with the Scots. As mentioned he moved the seat of his government to York (a better base of operations for an invasion of Scotland), and on 3 July, he crossed the Tweed by Coldstream with 12,500 or more foot and over 2,500 horse, veterans of his campaigns in France and Wales. Eight earls, two of them his kinsmen and one Scot of Angus, rode behind him with their knights and tenants. Bishop Bek of Durham, armed for a cause that was surely God's, commanded thirty-two bannered knights, all his leige-vassals. The dust of the great baggage-train, wheels, feet and hooves, hung above the forest, lances leafed with pennons, as the summer sun struck bright sparks from helm and shield. Above them all the tall figure of Edward on a black horse, his yellow hair now white, his aging back held straight in it's cuirass of steel. As this mighty force moved northward by Roxburgh and Lauderdale, skirting Edinburgh toward the Stirling plain, swallowing lonely castles and digesting their burnt stones, it was less powerful than it might have seemed to the watching Scots on the hills. It was hungry. The fleet that should have provisioned it had been delayed by weather. It was undisciplined. Welsh archers quarrelled viciously with Gasons, and sickness raddled its splendid chivalry. At Kirkliston, near Linlithgow, Edward decided to fall back on Edinburgh, where he might calm and feed his mutinous men.

Wallace's Peasant Army

Wallace, indefatigable and undismayed, had meanwhile collected from amid the peasantry, of whom he was guardian, and to whom he was an idol, a resolute force of 8,000-10,000 total men, including the reserves (mostly cavalry and infantry) brought by Red Comyn. With these he moved to Falkirk, in West Lothian, where, with great skill, he chose a strong position, having in its front a morass impassable for cavalry, and his flanks covered by breastworks of palisades driven into the earth and bound together by ropes. As Edwards massive formations crossed the Border Wallace withdrew into the hinterland, removing or burning all sources of food. He knew that Edward's army was far too big to be maintained totally by its own commissariat. When he reached Edinburgh, Edward was forced to wait fourteen days whilst the Bishop of Durham's troops destroyed Direlton and two neighbouring castles. Then the English army trudged on again: hungry, tired and with diminishing prospects of a decisive battle. Desertions increased, and fighting again broke out between English men-at-arms and Gascons versus Welsh archers. Then, on 21 July 1298, Wallace led his army forward to meet the English. In the early dawn of the following morning scouting parties from the two opposing forces met each other near Falkirk, heralding the opening of battle.

Provisions became scarce in Edward's camp at Kirkliston and the fleet from Berwick was anxiously looked for. The surrounding country, having been many times wasted by fire and sword (by Wallace), had English soldiers complaining bitterly of their scanty provender, and a change of quarters was contemplated. Only a small supply was received as the great body of the fleet was still being detained by adverse winds. A dangerous mutiny broke out in the English ranks. Under his banner Edward had vast numbers of Welsh bowmen, led by their chiefs, whom he had recently subjected to his stern sway. The famine was allowed, to be pressed hardest on the Welsh before the English. A supply of wine sent to them brought on a crisis and during the ride north. Edwards new Welsh archers, got into a killing fight with the English soldiers, which nearly broke up the whole invasion force in a sudden paroxysm of national antipathy. The Welsh turned upon the English in their tents at night. Edward's trumpets sounded promptly to horse, and charging the Welsh he slew more than eighty of them, and eventually restored order. Exasperated and sullen, the Welsh chietains now openly threatened to join Wallace.

"Let them do so" said Edward scornfully; "let them go over to my enemies. I hope soon to see the day when I shall Chastise them both". Wallace had heard of the troubles in Edwards Army and had planned a night attack upon the English camp, but two ignoble peers, jealous of his power, went to the English King's side and warned him. These traitors, unnamed, told Edward where Wallace was encamped in the forest near Falkirk and told of Wallaces position and intended tactics.

"Thanks be to God, who hath hitherto extricated me from every peril!,
exclaimed Edward. "I shall go forth to meet them".
Whilst camping one night, Edward's horse was startled by something , and the charger trod heavily upon his royal master breaking three of his ribs.

Wallace Prepares the Schiltron

Sir William Wallace feared the greater numbers of English horsemen for good reason. To counter them, he positioned his spear-carrying foot-soldiers behind boggy land, with woodland and rough terrain guarding their flanks. The 12 foot spears of the Scots were like long pikes and they stood in crowded phalanx formations -- called schiltrons (pronounced skil-trons) -- presenting the enemy with a forest of iron points.

A Scottish schiltron in action
[Scottish schiltron]
This clever invention, was Wallace's own creation. Wallace, it is supposed, had no prior knowledge of the great Greek and Macedonian Phalanx's used by armies such as Alexander the Great's, centuries before. Incidently, this same form of defence against cavalry was successfully used, four years later (1302), by the Flemish against the French cavalry. This classical literature and the wealth of information it contained remained a secret from most Europeans until Spanish Lord's captured the great palaces in the Moorish Kingdoms of Granada, and earlier in Spain itself. Much classical knowledge was reclaimed from the Spanish Reconquista, or the "reconquering" of Spain, by Christian Europeans.

Discovering a weath of books and information all written in Arabic from original Greek texts, a Spanish lord sought help to decipher them. He found that his Jewish man-servant had a knowledge of Arabic language, having lived so near the Moors. The servant translated the texts thus unlocking vast stores of information about Greek, Macedonian, Perisan, and Roman history which had been lost to Europe. Therefore, most feel and I would agree, Wallace had no prior knowledge of the phalanx's used by the ancients as sometimes stated in older Scottish history texts.

Wallace is credited with the invention of the Schiltron units (long speared units of men, to fight horsemen), that were later employed with tremendous success by the Flemish warriors against the French calvary at Courtrai, in 1302, and again with astounding success when used by Robert Bruce at Bannockburn in 1314.

In front of the spearmen, stakes were hammered into the ground with ropes joining them. Groups of short-bow Ettrick archers gathered between the schiltrons. The few Scots horsemen (purportedly under the command of the "Red" Comyn), waited in reserve, hoping to exploit any break in the enemy.

Wallace had badly misjudged the fighting condition of the English army, but he came to the field well prepared. He realised that his infantry must defeat Edward's cavalry and this had not happened for centuries. With the experience of Stirling Bridge behind him this seemed possible, although it was a rare event in medieval warfare of that period. He had trained his ferocious and hearty soldiers to fight in four tight box or oval formations, as mentioned above, called schiltrons. However Wallace's formations hadn't yet mastered moving in unison, as ABruce would do later on. They stood in one defensive position and tried to hold out. In addition to the front row of spear points, the unit was further protected by two more rows (triple rows) of the twelve foot spears, pointing outwards, the front rows kneeling whilst those behind stood. All around the marshing ground were stakes, murder holes and ropes tied to the stakes to trip up English horses.

Early sketch of Edward I
[Edward I]
By an unusual twist of historical fate, Edward also came to Falkirk with new tactics. He had learned from bitter experience in his Welsh Wars of the devastating firepower of the south Welsh longbowmen; and despite the cost and difficulty of dealing with the Celtic Welsh and their constant quarrelling with the English, he now included large numbers of them (for a price) in his army and began to use them as part of his coordinated battle plan. It would set the tone of English battle tactics for the next two centuries and serve the English remarkably well in France during the One Hundred Years War.


The Battle Opens

On St. Magdalen's day, 22 July, the army came in sight of the Scot's position. Edward proposed to refresh his soldiers, but, confident in their overwhelming numbers, they clamoured to be led against the Scots. Edward consented, "in the mane of Holy Trinity", and the English advanced in three columns. The first was led by Earl Marshal, the second by the Bishop of Durham, and the third by Edward himself.

Wallace had drawn the Scots up in four schiltrons (columns), each of 1,500 to 2,000 men. These were composed entirely of peasantry; for jealous of his increasing popularity, few knights and still fewer barons joined him.

Under this, however, there served as leaders Sir John Stewart of Bonhill, Sir John the Grahame of Abercorn and Dundaff; Duncan MacDuff, 11th Earl of Fife and John "Red" Comyn, son of the Lord of Badenoch.

Whilst the Bishop of Durham had been celebrating a Mass upon the hill for the English, the same sacrament was performed in the Scottish ranks; then all awaited steadily the advance of the foe.

The Battle

Led by Earl Marshal, the first English column came rapidly on; but not having reconnoitred the ground, their leading files rolled into the morass, where horse and man, the English and Gascon alike, were exposed to the arrows of Scottish (short or regular bow) archers. After some damage, the English advance swerved a little to the left, found firmer ground, closed their files, and charged.

Wallace had never before faced such an army, or fought a large battle without a natural defence. Here was no river, no narrow bridge to halt an armoured charge, and he may have sensed this was the end, for he made no great exhortation, but spoke simply and bluntly to his spearmen.

Wallace stirs his men
[Wallace addresses his men]
"Now", exclaimed Wallace, with pleasant confidence, to his soldiers, " I haif brocht ye to the ring -- hop (dance) gif ye can!", and at that moment the heavily-mailed English cavalry of the first line fell with a tremendous shock on the charged spears of the schiltron units of the Scots. Before Edward could fully deploy his army the impatient young bloods of the English chivalry, anxious to prove themselves, charged the Scottish schiltrons. They failed to break the well-disciplined Scots; but they slew the shortbowmen caught in the open between the formations. Galloping into the marshland, the horses slowed down. The majority of the English horsemen then wheeled to the left and right and rode around the swamp, hitting the Scots in the rear. Initially it appeared the Englsh were going to run themsleves into the pikes and spears of the schiltrons - the Scots seemed headed towards victory. But soon, after many failed attempts and lost English Knights, they were recalled.

The shock of the battle scattered the Scots horsemen and the English now plunged amid their foot-soldiers. The bows of the Scots that had not been silenced, had little power to penetrate the partial-plate and mail armour of the English heavy cavalry. They were quickly dispatched by the now charging English horsemen. But the Scots spearmen held firm. Their rope and stake entanglements tripped the English horses: knights crashed to the ground and were quickly killed by the Scots. The English men-at-arms could not break the relentless rows of pikes. The *English Master of the Templars rushed too recklessly on the spear forest, flailing madly with his sword, hoping to break it with animal strength. He and his five retainers were impaled. [*C. Rothero] By this time, Edward and his foot-soldiers had caught up with the knights and called off their rash attacks.

Edward had seen the danger of ultimalte disaster and gathered his secret new weapon -- the Welsh longbowmen. Many young English knights were impaled or, rather, their horses were impaled by the speared schiltrons and hundreds were pulled from their horses and beaten with mace and war hammer to the death.

As the Welsh archers gathered in position, a most curious thing happened. At that very moment, to the bewilderment of Wallace, "Red" John Comyn, a rival of Robert the Bruce, drew off all his vassals (mostly light horse and infantry), and with the utmost deliberation quit the field. This left Wallace and his Scots in a terrible predicament. Now they had no way to impede the Welsh archers by chasing them off with cavalry. They were sitting ducks.

It appears Wallace had been betrayed in the midst of combat, whether or not this was the work of Edward I is unknown, but unlikely. More probable is that Comyn and many Scots nobles, already jealous of Wallace's success and popularity with the Scottish commoners, simply felt the odds were to great and rode off. They had no particular love for Wallace and leaving him to the English would almost certainly rid them of that problem. Wallace, showing no dismay to his men, stood firm, though he now had only about 4,000-5,000 followers to face over 13,000 English heavily armed troops and cavalry.

[Monument]
It couldn't have been worse timing for the Scots and Wallace, for now nothing stood between Edwards deadly arrows and the immovable Scottish schiltrons. It couldn't have been better timing for Edward, to have Red Comyn's men quit the field at this exact moment. This has led to centuries of speculation that Wallace had been intentionally betrayed and that Edward might have had a hand in it. But, there is no substantive proof of this, and since Red Comyn was murdered by the Bruce in 1306, the only man who might know exactly why he left the battlefield was dead and silenced forever. It seems likely that Wallace was betrayed, if not by Edward's own planning, then at least by jealous Scottish nobles, who saw a losing battle and left with their men, leaving Wallace and his loyal peasant army to die alone against the might of Englands power and Edwards vengeance.

The Scottish archers had been removed (killed) from the field by the English cavalry and only Wallace and his infantry were left. He did all a brave man could do: inspire his men, fighting in the front ranks with his large two-handed sword.

Next, in the conclusion. The remainder of the Battle of Falkirk and the details of Wallace's capture & execution.

Next:

  • Falkirk, Part Two - Wallace's last 7 years & Execution, post Falkirk.

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