The Battle of Stirling Bridge – a summary

The Battle of Stirling Bridge, 11 September 1297, part of the Scottish Wars of Independence, proved to be a symbolic but short-lived victory for William Wallace and the Scots against the might of the English and their king, Edward I.

Scottish leaders, William Wallace and Andrew de Moray, had arrived at Stirling in early September 1297, and immediately took up positions on the north side of the river close to the imposing heights of the Abbey Craig, a vantage point overlooking the snaking river Forth and Stirling Bridge.

Edward I of EnglandEdward I’s English army arrived in fine style and must have been a splendid sight, with its banners fluttering in the breeze, vast baggage trains and knights in full regalia on their huge war horses.  Vastly outnumbering the Scots, they took position to the south, somewhere between Stirling Castle and the approach to the bridge. (Pictured: Edward I).

Sides are drawn

Much has been written about the battle, and a great deal remains shrouded in mystery.  Some estimates put the English force at 50,000 strong but this is unlikely given that the same source believes their casualties to have been around 5,000.  This would still have left the English with an impressive force, easily capable, in the right conditions, of defeating the Scots.  More likely is a figure between 10-18,000, with about 500-1,000 heavy cavalry.  This included a contingent of Welsh bowmen, recently recruited to Edward’s army after his conquest of Wales.  They were equipped with the most up to date weaponry of the day, the longbow, which gave them a huge advantage with their accuracy and range.

Most important of all was that this was an experienced force of men, blooded in battles in France, Wales and Scotland, and who were used to winning.  Their leaders were skilled military men, who had the trust of the rank and file, and their confidence was at an all time high.

William WallaceIn contrast, the men in Wallace (pictured) and Moray’s army would have numbered about 7-8,000 and were not seasoned professional soldiers.  Their weapons were a mix of whatever they could lay their hands on, and they had only a small number of light cavalry to rely on.

What the Scots did have was a faith in what they were doing, that they had right on their side.  They also had the guile and cunning of two great leaders, and, despite the fact they were not professionals, they had recaptured almost all of Scotland from the English in a whirlwind campaign.

Wallace and Moray had also chosen their ground particularly well.  The land on the north side of the bridge was a boggy quagmire, unsuitable for heavy cavalry, and the bridge itself was only wide enough for two horses abreast, meaning the English could only cross slowly and in small numbers.

Plans and more plans

John De Warenne, the English commander, was cautious at first.  He was a military man with an impeccable record and he could sense a trap when he saw one.  However, the impatience of the young English knights and the penny pinching Hugh de Cressingham played into the Scots hands, as the English argued about how best to engage the Scots army.

Into the argument weighed Sir Richard Lundie, a Scottish knight who had initially been an enemy of Edward’s but who had changed sides, angered and impatient with the way the Scottish nobles were arguing between themselves.

Lundie argued with de Warenne that the bridge was a death trap, informing him that any who crossed were dead men.  Instead, Lundie came up with a plan which involved him leading a company of knights and infantry across a ford some way downstream of the bridge.  He would then be in position to outflank the Scots and allow the main army to cross the bridge in safety.

But de Warenne was not swayed by this reasoning, possibly because he did not trust Lundie, and the seemingly spontaneous manner in which he changed sides.  Indeed Lundie would change sides again before the end of this campaign and become a leading light in the Scottish cause. Eventually de Warenne gave way to de Cressingham’s urgings to engage the Scots and ordered that his army should cross the bridge.

Wallace and Moray were reasonably educated men and had fought guerilla campaigns for some time.  They were tactically astute and may have studied many aspects of warfare during their schooling, possibly historical tales of inferior forces defending narrow points to choke their enemies superior strength of numbers and allowing at least an even fight.

In any event the two would likely have employed such a tactic in smaller skirmishes, and now, with the full force of a professional army bearing down on them, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to employ it again.

Battle commences

There was some initial confusion on the morning of 11 September 1297.  About 5,000 troops made the crossing before it was discovered that de Warrenne had slept in and they were subsequently recalled.

Eventually, the commander was roused and the order was given for the army to cross the river once more.  As they crossed the swirling Forth, the Scots held back from attack until the last minute, watching and waiting as the pride of England’s mighty army came on.

When they felt they had allowed just enough of the enemy to cross, the signal was given, and the Scots rushed from their positions on the lower slopes of the Ochils and charged the English bridgehead with their full force, their spears leveled at the terrified English infantry.

The Bridge

The bridgehead was almost immediately cut off from retreat back across the river by the speed of this shock attack, and, with the boggy ground unsuitable for the cavalry and the main body of the army on the other side of the narrow bridge, the English could not bring their superior numbers or weaponry to bear.  De Warenne had also made the crucial mistake of sending his Welsh bowmen to the bridgehead, meaning they were vulnerable to the Scots attack and were unable to decisively use their main weapon.

The English soldiers were pushed back against the river by the relentless Scots, cutting and hacking their way through the mass of infantry.  Panic ensued on the bridge itself as the men crossing tried to flee to the English side and were prevented by those coming behind.  Men and horses were tipped over the sides of the narrow structure and drowned in the fast flowing river, weighed down by armour, or were slaughtered where they stood.  The main army, seeing the ruin of their comrades, lost heart for the fight and fled the scene.

Some tales recount the Scots deliberately destroying the bridge to prevent English reinforcements crossing and giving aid to the bridgehead, but this is unlikely.  The battle was so short that there was no time for such reinforcements to be sent.  Also, the bridge was crucial to the Scottish economy, providing the only crossing of the river for miles and also provided a springboard for the Scottish pursuit.

The bridge was more likely destroyed by the retreating English, to prevent the Scottish forces from pursuing them, and thus giving de Warenne, and what was left of his troops, time to escape.

An English disaster

It was a disaster for the English and de Warenne.  Probably up to half of their army was destroyed, the king’s treasurer Hugh de Cressinham was pulled from his horse and killed and the Scots captured most of the English baggage.  In addition they were chased and harried back across the border, the stragglers being picked off by Wallace and Moray’s men, or murdered by locals as they attempted to escape south.

It is, perhaps, this battle which lies deep in the Scottish psyche even to this day.  The idea of a nation, beaten and humiliated, rising up against a far superior enemy and defeating them in such a spectacular manner is one that would have resonated among the people of the time, inspiring them to take up arms and giving them hope that they could eventually regain their country.

There is no mention of Scottish casualties, other than that they were light but in one respect.  Andrew de Moray was fatally injured during the battle and died some time later of his wounds.

This was a monumental blow to the Scots.  Moray had been a leading light in the resistance to English occupation and many believe he was the architect of the victory at Stirling, with William Wallace only coming to prominence due to his comrade’s death.  Whether that was the case or not it was certainly a loss of some magnitude to the Scots.

However the elation of their victory at Stirling was to be short lived.  Before a year was out the English, and Edward, would have their revenge.

Russell Burgess

See also articles on Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, the Battle of Bannockburn and the Battle of Falkirk.