Thursday, July 22, 2010

Battle of Falkirk

So, we come to the Battle of Falkirk. The second and last major battle that William Wallace fought. It was, unfortunately, not a Scots victory like the earlier Battle of Stirling Bridge (which we will be talking about in September) but it did have a large impact on Scotland’s history, though not for the better, I regret to say.

Wallace had just finished a successful raid into England after his victory at Stirling and was on his way back north to Scotland, getting word that Edward Longshanks was sending an army northward to crush the Scottish resistance for good. Wallace, acting fast, began administrating the “scorched-earth policy”. This was when an army would go through, burning crops and running off livestock so that the opposing army would not have anything to eat on their way through the land. His idea almost worked, the English were starving. It is said that they could only find one skinny cow through all the Lowlands. Earl Surrey, one of the English commanders, blandly stated that it was “the dearest beef he had ever tasted”. The English ordered supplies, but their ships were delayed and the only ones that got through were carrying wine, so Longshanks’ army was full of drunkards and his recruited--or more press-ganged--Welshmen threatened to desert. However, before anyone could take drastic action, two traitorous Scotch earls, Angus and Dunbar, came to Edward’s camp and told him that Wallace’s army was camped only eighteen miles away at Falkirk. Edward Longshanks was delighted to hear this news and marched their immediately.

And, let’s not forget my favorite wee story surrounding the Battle of Falkirk! On the eve of battle, Longshanks ordered his men to sleep lightly, ready for combat at the drop of a pin in case the Scots decided to make a night attack. So the knights, including Longshanks himself, slept in the armor, right beside their chargers. In the night, Edward’s horse was reported to have stepped on him, cracking some of his ribs. Edward screamed and his men, thinking there was an attack, leapt up, ready to fight. Edward finally had to pull himself into his saddle, broken ribs and all to show them he was still alive. This story always gives me a laugh.

There is also a Wallace stone at the small town of Riggend which is reported to have sharpened Wallace’s trusty claymore before the battle of Falkirk. It is only one of many Wallace stones scattered over the face of Scotland. Another is where Wallace stood to watch the English approach where a monument now stands.

And on to the actual battle itself. Wallace decided that the best tactics to use against English cavalry were the schiltroms, later used by Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn They were circles of spearmen designed to stand firm to the last and were known to withstand any charge against them. It was said they were originally of Welsh design and were used actually, quite frequently in the medieval period. The English were first sighted by Wallace as he was standing on a ridge above Falkirk, looking out to what would be the field of battle the next day. He gathered his men and got them into formation the next morning and waited for the English to approach.

Wallace had four schiltroms containing bout two thousand men each, they were accompanied by skilled archers from Selkirk under John Steward. He was also able to form a small cavalry under John Comyn. The cavalry however, was to be the major downfall of the battle.

When the English formed up on the other side of the field, they were left with the marshy ground whereas the Scots, who got to choose their position first were situated on and in front of a hill, having the high ground.

It is chronicled that before the battle began and the English were just about ready to charge, Wallace shouted out to his men, “I have brought you to the ring. Now dance the best you can!” Then the English proceeded with this rather confused first attack. It seemed that the Welsh, who were still mad at the English, refused to charge against the rather frightening looking schiltroms, so the cavalry was sent out first. The first knights however, they and their horses bogged down in heavy armor, got stuck in the marshy ground between them and the Scots. After dragging themselves out of that, they found drier ground to the left and proceeded with their charge against the Scottish schiltroms.

The spearmen held miraculously. The Scots would have undoubtedly been able to win the day if it had not been for the English archers. No one could touch the Scottish spearmen with hand held weaponry, but the archers did major damage to their ranks. soon their were not enough to hold position and they were forced to break. Wallace called on his cavalry, but for whatever reason, they refused. There has been huge debate as to what actually went on there, but I think that John Comyn, among the other Scottish earls in the cavalry, betrayed Wallace and left him to be defeated by the English. The English cavalry, seeing that the Scots were wavering, charged forward and began their mass slaughter. Wallace eventually had to call the retreat or be killed along with with all the others.

One of the highest casualties in this battle came in the form of Wallace’s second in command and good friend, Sir John Graham. It is said that William Wallace shed tears over the body of his fallen comrade when he found him lying on the battlefield of Falkirk. There is a commemorative tomb for John Graham at Falkirk Old and St. Modans Church and the dedication which reads:

“Here lies Sir John Graham, baith wight and wise
Ane of the chiefs who reschewit Scotland thrice
Ane better knight not to the world was lent
Nor was gude Grame of truth hardiment.”

There is also supposition as to what Robert the Bruce was doing at the time of the Battle of Falkirk. Some people even consider the fact that he was in the battle, though on the English side. This was the case in Blind Harry’s epic The Wallace where we see him and Wallace meeting on the field of battle and Wallace gives him a tongue lashing which causes him to change him mind for good and join the Scots. This was also featured in the movie Braveheart, but it is not known weather or not there is any truth behind the story. Some historians shun the fact that he fought in the battle at all and others say that if he did, it was more likely he would have been on the Scots’ side. It is hard to say though in reality, because Bruce changed his allegiance many times before he was crowned in 1306.

So Wallace lost the battle and was once again forced out into the woods with his small group of followers. He resigned his position as Guardian of Scotland, thinking he had failed his country by his loss in the battle, and set out for France to find help.

I’ll be telling a lot more about Wallace next month, so if you want to know more, check back then. I’ll be back later this week with another battle post.

Slainte, Hazel


  1. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. Scots betraying fellow Scots...nothing has changed.