Friday, September 10, 2010

Stirling Bridge

The Battle of Stirling Bridge was the highest point in the career of William Wallace. It is the one that has gone down in history and has been immortalized in song and story ever since. It was an amazing victory, one of the best the Scots ever saw and, like Flodden, it is still remembered today, though in celebration of the joyous victory where Wallace and his men got to stand there on the banks of the River Fourth and shout out their defiance to the English army running away into the distance.

William Wallace had been raiding all the English held towns in Scotland, driving the men of Edward Longshanks like poison from the land. Edward himself was in Flanders at the time, waging war against the French and when he heard word of Wallace's exploits, he commanded his army commander, John de Warenne, the Earl of Surrey to take his men and march north to meet the Scots and stop their inexperienced force.

Little did he know, though, that Wallace was not in the least inexperienced.

Wallace had a plan. He had joined up with another young man named Andrew Murray (also sometimes spelled as de Moray) Andrew had been campaigning up north while Wallace had been in the Lowlands and had freed some of the Highland towns from English occupation. The two young patriots got on very well it seemed and were able to work together to come up with a plan to send the English packing. They heard about the English army coming north, and they immediately thought of Stirling Bridge. It was a very well traveled rout back then and would have been crossed by many people traveling into Scotland. It was constructed over the River Fourth, a wide and heavy flowing river that was nearly impossible to cross on foot.

Surrey went along with Hugh de Cressingham, the treasurer of England who was really only there to make sure Longshanks' money was being well spent. He was unpopular in both Scotland and England because he was fat and brutish and people had been known to call him the "Treacherer" instead of the treasurer. He fancied himself a knight though, for he was to make one of many charges that day.

When the English army joined up on the southern side of the River Fourth, they sent two friers over to Wallace's side to ask if he would surrender. When Wallace got the message, he was reported to have said, "Tell your commander that we are not here to make peace but to do battle to liberate ourselves and our kingdom. Let them come on and we shall prove this to their very beards."

With that, you can almost hear Surrey's sigh of resignation as he told his men to form up and begin to cross the bridge. This would have been the main force of mounted knights. The infantrymen, mostly Welsh archers, would have formed up on the banks of the river on the English side and shot across to the Scots side. The English knights began to cross the bridge and form up in front of the Scots army who were formed at the base of the Abbey Craig, a rocky cliff over looking the River Fourth where the National Wallace Monument now stands. Wallace waited just long enough for about half of the knights to cross and then he blew a signal on his horn and the bridge collapsed.

The story of the collapse Stirling Bridge, is a little bit far fetched, but might very well be true. It was said there was a man hanging under the bridge, a carpenter, who had fixed it so that when the signal came, he could pull a pin out and collapse the bridge. There is evidence of this really happening, for the family that the carpenter belonged to have ever since named their first born son "Pin" in honor of his deed for Wallace.

When the bridge collapsed, all the English knights who were on the bridge, which, considering the length of it, was a considerable amount, fell into the River Fourth. I'm sure most of them drowned, being swept down the river in their heavy armor. The English knights who had already crossed now saw that there was no way they could get back to their reinforcements and that they were going to be forced to meet the Scots in hand-to-hand combat.

Wallace wasted no time. As soon as the bridge collapsed, he led him men forward and they fell on the Englishmen killing many. The terrain around the river was marshy, and a lot of the knights, had formed up on the marshy ground, their horses sinking in so their movement was hindered. Wallace and his men however, had formed up on the causeway from the Abbey Craig to the River Fourth and thus had stable ground to fight on.

It was over in only a little bit. Sometime during the fray, Cressingham had tried to prove himself and had gotten slain for his troubles. It is said that the Scots skinned him after the battle and some accounts even say that they made Wallace a baldric (a sword belt) out of his hide. Barbaric, you might say? Well, the English stuck their enemy's heads and limbs up for people to view.

James the Steward and the Earl of Lennox, two Scottish earls who had come to Wallace's aid, had forded the river further along and taken off after the English baggage trains, thus winning valuable spoils.

Wallace had won the day. But it had come with a price as usual. Andrew Murray had been wounded in the battle and as the winter came on, he died of his injuries which turned out to be worse then first thought. Wallace mourned the loss of his friend and fellow commander.

It was after this battle that Wallace was knighted and bestowed the honor of being Guardian of Scotland.

You can still see the wooden posts from the original Stirling Bridge in the River Fourth on a clear day. The new one stands a bit to one side of it and that one too has seen a lot of history over the years.

Here is a song about the Battle of Stirling Bridge sung by, as usual, The Corries!

I'll be taking requests this month, so if there is anything you want me to talk about, please tell me!

Slainte, Hazel


  1. Eww! If old Cressingham was big enough, they could have made baldrics for all of Wallace's men.


  2. I know, right?! That's one of David Ross' favorite stories.

  3. Warfare 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.