William Wallace and the Battle of Stirling Bridge, Pt.1


William Wallace and the Battle of Stirling Bridge, Pt.1


Part One

Background: Scotland, 1286 A.D.

Edward I of England had only recently completed phase one of his conquest of Wales by defeating the forces of Prince Llywelyn. Edward, for all of his disreputable charateristics, was indeed one of England's most powerful and effective rulers, particularly in his military campaigns. At the time, Anglo-Norman England commanded the most powerful, best equipped, armed military forces in all of Europe.

Edward had shown his military tactics in battles in Wales, England and France, to be very effective, if cruel and ruthless. He was indeed an enemy to be feared.

It was Welsh misfortune to choose to fight with one of England's most powerful rulers. Like other medieval kings, Edward had problems to settle in France, but throughout his reign these were overruled by his determination to increase English influence in Britain. Such a focus of attention, backed up by high military expertise, was bad news for the island's Celtic realms. For, after Wales, Edward set his sights on Scotland. In 1286, against the desires of his advisors, Alexander III, king of Scots, went for a midnight ramble to Kinghorn to see his new, young bride. "Neither storm nor floods nor rocky cliffs, would prevent him from visiting matrons, virgins and widows, by day or by night as the fancy seized him", said one contemporary. But it appears this night, Alexander was intent on being with his young bride. In the dark of night, traveling by steep mountains, plunged over a cliff and was later found with a broken neck.

Alexander III
[Alexander III]
Alexander's heirs, his daughter and wife had died before him, and no direct adult heir was available to fill the now vacant throne of Scotland. Chaos and confusion reigned in Scotland now, instead of a rightful king or queen. Alexander's only direct heir was his grand-daughter, Margaret, an infant child known as the "Maid of Norway", the daughter of King Eric of Norway and Alexander's own daughter Margaret. Alexander's untimely death couldn't have come at a worse time for Scotland. It marked the end of a period of peace and prosperity during which country's borders, always a shifting affair, had been defined and the differing tribal "stew" of groups in the Lowlands of Celt, Saxon, and Norman had to some extent, finally grown into one recognisable nation.

The Highland and the Isles continued to be a land of Celtic and Norse people, but the Lowlands from where the Scots king ruled, was a veritable mix of ethnic groups and Gaelic was beginning to become a secondary language to English and, in places, Norman French or even Latin still prevailed.

Edward Becomes Involved in the Political Situation

Edward cleverly sought to arrange a hasty marriage of his son, the Prince of Wales, and the little Margaret, "Maid of Norway". In what can only be said to be at best, bad judgement on the part of the Scots nobles, agreement to the marriage of young Margaret and Edward of Caernarvon was signed into treaty: the treaty of Birgham.

However, fate again dealt a cruel blow to Scotland as little Margaret took ill on her voyage to England from Norway and died of fever in Orkney. Now the throne to Scotland and her future laid in the hands of 13 claimants for the empty throne.

At the request of Norman-blooded Scot, Bishop Fraser, a letter was urgently sent to Edward asking him to arbitrate the increasingly volatile Scottish situation. Anxious to utilise this new opportunity to unite the whole Island of Britain, Edward readily agreed to arbitrate and hoped to bring all of Scotland under his sovereign control.

Acknowledging his feudal and military superiority, the Scots regents allowed Edward to decide who should rule Scotland. The front runners were John Balliol and Robert the Bruce "the Competitor". Both these lords were descendants of knights of William the Conqueror. By this time, Scotland, especially the Lowlands, was dominated by Anglo-Norman landowners ruling estates throughout the realm. Also in consideration was Sir "Red" John Comyn.

John Balliol ran vast estates in France; Robert the Bruce the Younger, earl of Carrick, owned land in Essex. This conquest of Celtic Scotland had been achieved through court politics, (notably Canmore and David I), intermarriage, and peaceful settlement. In the North, there were still many Scots landownders and clansmen who were of direct Celtic or Celtic/Norse descent, but increasingly the politics of the day was being handled by warlords of Norman or partial Norman blood. Some state that the ensuing Anglo-Scots war was therefore more a power struggle between Anglo-Norman dynasties and not an international war of Scot versus English (or Celt vs Normans), as was more the case in Wales and Ireland. However, this writer sees it as a mixture of both. Clearly in the Lowlands this was true, but the Highlands of Scotland, not to mention the fiercly independent Isles, the Celt and Celtic/Norse people were not ruled by Normans. So the confrontations to come were really a mixture of both schools of thought: Celt versus English, Norman dynasties pitted against one another. The common people of the Highlands, and some of the lower aristocracy in the Lowlands, were Celtic stock and still spoke Gaelic. It was these people, rallying to the cause of their Scots Norman masters, who may have envisaged their battle against the English invader as a national struggle for independence. As it turned out, they were quite correct. Even so, it is important to understand that the army that would eventually face the Anglo-Normans at Stirling Bridge, would be predominantly men of Lowland stock. The Highlanders would come into play more under Bruce, than Wallace.

Longshanks
[Eward I, Longshanks]
Edward wanted to dominate Scotland. If he couldn't become it's king, then he would choose the most malleable contender. He selected John Balliol, (although according to Celtic customs -- Robert Bruce had a stronger claim). The elder Robert Bruce (son of Bruce, the Competitor) passed his family's claim onto his son, Earl of Carrick, Robert the Bruce. The Bruce's refused to do homage to the new king. Tiring of his humiliating role as frontman for Edward's ambitions, King John Balliol renounced his allegiance to the English king and renewed the Auld Alliance with France, preparing the way for war with England. Robert the Bruce refused the call to arms for various reasons. Loyal to Edward at the time, it now seemed that Balliol might be displaced in favour of the Bruce claim. Ploys and plots, high politics were in play on the part of the Bruces. His apparent indecision which appears to make him weak, was probably a carefully played plan to eventually win the throne of Scotland.

Balliol was in his forties, ambitious, but rather weak-willed. Edward treated him with brutal contempt, using him merely as a feudal puppet to carry out English policies in Scotland. Finally, tired of this constant humiliation, Balliol renounced his oath of allegiance and opposed Edward. The English King, deeply embroiled in a bitter war with France in Gascony and confronted by yet another Welsh rebellion, stormed north to deal with Balliol and his followers.

Although involved in a war in France and Wales, king Edward rode north with an army of English Knights and Welsh archers. Incidentally, it may be thought remarkable that the Welsh should form such a major part of Edward's army so soon after their own defeat at his hands. But the defeat was against the Welsh Celtic nobility. The ordinary Welshman was happy to fight for money and food, on any side, due to famine. For many of the Celtic nobility, however, Wales had ceased to be their homeland and several Welsh nobles served abroad as mercenaries. The French chronicler Froissart, for instance, mentions Owain of Wales who offered his services to the French King during the Hundred Years War.

The English army arrived outside the town of Berwick at the end of March 1296 to find the citizens and castle prepared for a long siege. So confident were the inhabitants of Berwick that they jeered at the English army over the battlements. But the experienced English troops, wild with rage, and at the urging of their king, captured the town nearby in a bloody matter of minutes. They then spent the rest of the day slaughtering its citizens: men, women and children, all under the direct orders of Edward I, "Hammer of the Scots". It is said that so many townspeople were killed, that the stains of their blood could be seen on the town walls, like a watermark, for decades afterwards. Seeing the horrifying result of further resistance to Edward, the castle opened its gates and surrendered that evening.

But Edwards bloodlust was not assauged yet. With Berwick in his hands, he sent his most senior lieutenant, John de Warrenne, to take Dunbar. De Warrenne's detachment consisted of the best cavalry, numbers of Welsh bowmen, and a good force of infantry raised in the northern levies. On arriving at Dunbar, 29 April 1296, de Warrenne found this castle also prepared for a siege, and the main Scottish army outside its walls at a place called Spottsmuir. It was commanded by John "Red" Comyn, Earl of Buchan. De Warrenne ignored the castle and offered battle to the main body of Scottish troops. The Scots, not lacking in courage but ill disciplined, broke ranks and hurled themselves at the English troops, only to be showered by thousands of Welsh arrows.

Broken and confused, they were trampled into the ground by de Warrenne's cavalry, who rode among the Scots slaughtering even the few remaining survivors with sword, lance, axe and mace. De Warrenne totally routed the Scottish army killing over 10,000 men, many of whom were injured and lying helpless on the field.

The result was a total English victory and the loss of Scottish men, women, children and Scottish pride. Aside from the dead, John "Red" Comyn, three other Scottish Earls and more than a hundred of Comyn's most important followers were captured. Edward followed his victory at Dunbar with a triumphant march through Scotland, taking his army further than any previous ruler of Britain since the Romans.

Balloil's Fall from Power, Scotland now under English Domination

Edward with Balliol
[Eward I, Balliol kneeling]
Parading in triumph through Scotland, Edward demanded the abdication of Balliol. At Montrose, the two kings confronted each other. In front of both English and Scots courtiers, Balliol's coat of arms was ripped from him and thrown on the floor. His humiliation was complete. But Edward's arrogance had further heights to reach. Through fear alone, he received the homage of the Scots magnates. At Perth, he commanded that the sacred Stone of Scone (pronounced Skoon) -- upon which generations of Scots Kings had been crowned -- be removed and delivered to Westminster Abbey. Ignoring the Bruce claim, Edward appointed an English viceroy over the Scots. Scotland it seemed was now part of the English Crown. As Edward I returned over the border, a chronicler recorded his rude parting comments of Scotland : " It does a man good to be shot (rid) of a turd."

A Hero Emerges from Scotland

[Wallace Statue]This was far from the end of the conflict between the two countries, however. In the spring of 1297 the whole of Scotland, with the possible exception of Lothian (long an Anglo-Saxon area) was in a state of armed insurrection. At Lanark a complete garrison of English troops were massacred by troops loyal to what is described as a giant of a man named William Wallace, son of a minor local landownder and knight from Ellersie, [NOTE: There is considerable debate and disagreement over the exact birthplace of Wallace. James MacKay said Ellerslie, some say he is discredited, others say Elderslie, the town has long claimed it as his birth place and avidly sells Wallace memorabilia - quite an industry. Truth is, no one is quite sure where he was born], near Paisley. He quickly became a symbol of Scottish resistance to the English occupation of Scotland. But just who was this William Wallace?

Part Two is next: The look at Wallace and the Battle itself.

Next:
Battle of Stirling Bridge: the battle, Pt.2

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