If the Scottish armies’ glorious victory at Stirling Bridge, 11 September 1297, was a spectacular affront to the superpower of the day, then the defeat at the Battle of Falkirk on 22 July 1298, was normal service resumed as far as England’s king, Edward I, was concerned.
Infuriated by the defeat at Stirling, the English monarch mustered another army, larger than before and extremely well organised.
William Wallace (pictured) knew that the English forces were far superior. He would probably have known that achieving such a success as at Stirling was unlikely, as Edward I himself was in command now and it is doubtful that he would be drawn into a similar trap that lost him the battle at Stirling.
Wallace, then, contented himself with a scorched earth policy. He burned the villages of his own country, destroyed the crops of the farms and moved the people and their animals to the north, out of the reach of Edward.
Scorched earth was an effective, if not extreme, solution to the military problem Wallace faced. His army was more disciplined than the Scots rabble that had faced John de Warenne at the Battle of Dunbar, but it was still little match for the English in a pitched battle on equal terms.
Wallace knew this, and his tactic was to wait Edward out, draw him into Scotland, starve his men and horses, hit him in guerrilla attacks when the ground suited and generally be a thorn in the English sovereign’s side until his men lost heart.
Edward I (pictured) was wise enough to realise that his soldiers would not campaign for ever and he desired a quick end to the war. But, faced with ever lengthening supply lines, hungry and disillusioned men and weakening horses, he was near to turning back when he was suddenly advised that the Scots were in a position near Falkirk.
Spurring his men to action himself, Edward marched his troops overnight to Falkirk, getting much needed supplies delivered from the sea at just the right moment. In the morning he found his army faced by Wallace and the Scots.
It is unclear why Wallace decided to fight the English at this juncture. His scorched earth policy was working, despite Edward’s recent supply problem being alleviated, and his own men, it must be assumed, would have been quite happy never to have faced the charge of the English heavy cavalry again.
Critics argue that Wallace was tactically inept and point to the defeat at the Battle Falkirk as proof that his colleague, Andrew de Moray, had been the true brains behind the victory at Stirling. This does not stand up to scrutiny as Wallace had, until now, been very good at defeating the English in small scale battles and his scorched earth policy was also sound, proving that he knew when to fight and when to run.
More likely is that Edward had surprised him by marching his army through the night, and by the time the Scots had discovered what had happened it was too late to run and the only option was to stand and fight.
‘Dance the best you can’
The result, also, was not a foregone conclusion. The Scots had chosen good ground and had formed up in four schiltrons, circular formations of infantry with long spears pointing outwards in all directions, thus providing a dense, impenetrable defensive position against the might of the English cavalry charge.
Edward drew up his forces now, convinced that he would destroy the Scots and wrest the country back from them in one swift strike.
Wallace had done all he could in preparation for this titanic struggle and called to his men: ‘I have brought you to the ring. Dance the best you can’.
The English cavalry charged the schiltrons, determined to run them into the ground, but the Scots held firm, exacting a toll of the English knights as they recklessly threw themselves at the rows of glistening spears. Dozens of knights and their steeds perished as the Scots stood their ground and the battle could have gone the way of the defenders had their own cavalry not mysteriously vanished from the field without engaging even a single infantryman.
Edward now threw in the infantry against the Scots, and, with a deadly hail of arrows from his bowmen for good measure, he gradually wore down, then broke the Scottish defence.
The defeat of the Scots at the Battle of Falkirk was complete. Almost the entire Scottish army was slaughtered, with only Wallace and a small number of Scots on horseback escaping the carnage.
This was the end of Wallace as a major player in the wars of Scottish Independence, and he was to remain in the shadows until his capture and death seven years later in 1305.
As for Edward, it seemed that he finally had subdued the stubborn Scots, and, with his nemesis defeated, the rest of the country would come to heel.
What he had not anticipated was that, with Wallace now effectively out of the picture, it left the way open for an even more influential character to come to the fore and take up the fight against English rule… enter Robert the Bruce.