The Battle of Stirling Bridge, which took place in Scotland on September 11, 1297, was a pivotal battle in the First Scottish War for Independence, pitting Scottish forces under William Wallace and Andrew de Moray against English troops fighting for John de Warenne, 7th Earl of Surrey, and Sir Hugh de Cressingham. The outcome of the battle has been celebrated in Scottish history ever since.
Rebellious Scots had been fighting against the rule of England’s King Edward I ever since he deposed King John Balliol in 1296. They were led by William Wallace, who had turned outlaw after he murdered an English sheriff who had killed his wife. Wallace raised an army with another rebel leader, Andrew de Moray, to battle the English troops who were occupying the country. When Wallace and Moray’s forces raided south into England, King Edward sent Warenne and Cressingham to confront the Scots. After rampaged through the countryside, the English forces arrived at an English-held castle at Stirling, on the south side of the River Forth.
A Strategic Location
The British chose Stirling Bridge to confront the Scottish army for two reasons. The first was the protection offered by the English castle that commanded the approaches to the river. The second was the bridge’s strategic crossing location in the narrow middle of Scotland, where most of the surrounding countryside was made up of nearly impassable bogs. Strategically speaking, if the English could control Stirling Bridge, they would control the main route into the northern part of Scotland, held by the rebels.
The Battle Begins
Medieval sources conflict on troop numbers, but it is possible the Scots had roughly 8,000 men, most of them pike-armed infantry, with bowmen and a small number of cavalry, while the British had perhaps 10,000 infantry and 200 to 300 cavalry. Delaying at the bridge’s edge, Warenne sought to parlay with the Scots, but Wallace refused and arrayed his forces in plain sight on a rise of land just north of the bridge At this point, Warenne called a meeting of his commanders to decide the best strategy. Despite being urged to seek a downriver ford with which to flank the Scots, Warenne decided that he wanted the battle over quickly. He sent Cressingham across the bridge with his heavy cavalry -- knights in arms -- followed by bowmen and foot soldiers.
It was a strategic error of extraordinary magnitude. The bridge was so narrow that the English forces could only cross two abreast and thus made very slow progress. Wallace and Moray simply waited until, as a medieval chronicler of the battle wrote, "as many of the enemy had come over as they believed they could overcome." As the English attempted to form up ranks after their crossing, Scottish pikemen moved quickly down from the high ground and attacked the knights with their 12-foot spears, while another part of the Scottish force seized and held the north end of the bridge, isolating the advance English and cutting off their escape route.
Unable to employ his numerically superior force because of the narrowness of the bridge, Warenne watched helplessly on the other side as almost all his knights were dragged from their horses and slaughtered by Wallace’s infantry. Eventually, after Hugh de Cressingham was killed, Warenne ordered the south end of the bridge burned to prevent the Scottish from following, and fled back to England. Although Andrew de Moray was to die of wounds he received at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, it was an extraordinary victory for the Scots, due in large part to English strategic blunders.
Based in New Jersey, Joseph Cummins has been a freelance writer since 2002. He has written 17 books covering history, politics and culture. He has a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Columbia University. His work has been featured in "The New York Times" Freakonomics blog, "Politico," "New York Archives" magazine, "The Carolina Quarterly," "The Michigan Quarterly" and elsewhere.