The Other 9/11: William Wallace Triumphs At Stirling

The Real Braveheart - How William Wallace Triumphed In Scotland

The Other 9/11: William Wallace Triumphs At Stirling
Mel Gibson's blockbuster film may have made William Wallace and Robert The Bruce household names, but how accurate was the movie Braveheart?
The real William Wallace may have never shouted out the now iconic film quote: "They may take away our lives, but they'll never take our freedom!", but one thing we know for sure is that he, and the scenes of the battle he won against King Edward I's forces, were nothing like their movie counterparts.
There were no kilts, there was no blue face paint, and there was no open field with feisty, ramshackle units of Scottish rebels flashing bare bottoms defiantly at their English oppressors.
Instead, there was a bridge and a pair of very cunning Scottish commanders lying in wait for the perfect moment to unleash their concealed army.
Stirling Bridge
It wasn't 'The Battle of Stirling' so much as "The Battle of Stirling Bridge", still standing in stone today (it was wood during Wallace's time; image: Bloodworx)

Braveheart - The Real Battle Locations

The concealed army was hidden within the woods of Abbey Craig, a hill overlooking the river Forth spanned by Stirling Bridge.

This is about 79 miles away from the areas in Glen Coe and about 23 miles from areas at Loch Leven, Kinross, where scenes for the Braveheart film were shot, with other scenes filmed elsewhere including Ireland and London.

Wallace, a nobleman who had refused a call to service by England's King Edward I, had chosen to help whip up a rebellion instead, and joined forces with Andrew Murray (or Moray), another nobleman who'd fought, been captured by, and then escaped from the English.

The two men had around 180 cavalrymen and 6,400 infantrymen, including bowmen for protection, under their command.

These soldiers were every bit as well organised as the English forces that would soon deploy in front on them on the morning of September 11th, 1297.

Picture of Stirling Castle
Stirling Castle, on top of the hill, as it is today; English forces formed up at the base of the hill before preparing to cross (image: Janfrie1988)

The infantry was organised into 'schiltrons', a body of troops formed into what was effectively a phalanx, armed with pikes or spears.

A quaternion had four men under his command, making up, with him, the equivalent of a five-man squad. Two of these units were commanded by a decurion, which was roughly the equivalent of a 'section' in today's British Army.

Men were further designated into company-sized units of 100 men, and regimental groups of 1,000 men were commanded by a chiliarch.

statue of William Wallace at Abbey Craig castle near Stirling in an insert over a picture of Abbey Craig
Abbey Craig, from where the Scots formed up and attacked, is topped by the Wallace monument today, upon which is mounted a statue of Wallace (image: Karel), which does not remotely resemble Mel Gibson...

For their part, the English forces were over-confident and disorganised.

A full-blown war between England and Scotland had begun the year before, but Edward I, convinced he'd crushed the Scots, had left.

Muttering 'it's a relief to be rid of s**t', he headed south again to deal with more pressing matters related to the crusades and his lands in Southern France.

Portraits by painting and in glass of Edward I and of William Wallace
Edward I, 'Longshanks' (left), had beaten the Welsh before, imposing military dominance through castles & by making his son 'Prince of Wales'; subsequently, many of the soldiers fighting the Scots were Welsh - ironically, Wallace (right) means 'Welshman'

John de Warene, the Earl of Surrey, and Sir Hugh Cressingham, the Treasurer of Scotland, were the king's representatives left behind at Stirling.

The town had a castle cresting a hill that was opposite the Scottish rebels, who were now encamped inside the woods on Abbey Craig.

Stirling was strategically vital - the River Forth separated northern and southern Scotland, and any invasion of the north would need to start here.

In his book on Wallace's rebellion, however, author Pete Armstrong suggests that Cressingham may not have been militarily astute enough to fully appreciate this.

The town of Stirling with Stirling Bridge visible
The battlefield as seen from around Stirling Castle; Abbey Craig, where the Scots encamped, is opposite (image: Kim Traynor)

As treasurer, Cressingham had a lot more troops under his command, but he'd sent a large number away, deeming them unnecessary and too expensive. This left him with 350 cavalry and 6,350 infantry (including long and crossbowmen).

On the morning of the battle, he'd rejected advice to send a party to ford the river further north so that his men could flank the Scots, who were now visibly assembling opposite, below Abbey Craig.

He may have been concerned that such a manoeuvre would cause the Scots to flee, and planned for a quick victory over the rebels that would curry favour with the king and advance his career.

So he chose to have all his men cross the narrow bridge and assemble into battle lines on the other side, not realising the danger posed by dividing his forces.

The Scots, using their opponents' complacency to their advantage, awaited the perfect moment to catch them off guard.

3D map of the Battle of Stirling in 1297
The English, in red, came down from the castle, crossed the bridge & formed up on the other side, in full view of the already assembled Scots (image from 'Stirling Bridge and Falkirk' by Peter Armstrong © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

It was a fight that had been a long time coming.

Braveheart opens with a dark prologue - Scotland, with a recently dead king, is vulnerable to England's cruel and opportunistic 'Edward the Longshanks'.

The dead king mentioned was Alexander III, who'd died not in 1280, as the film states, but in 1286, when he was flung from his horse and plunged over a cliff.

His death triggered a political crisis because there was no clear heir, and Scotland's nobles, fearing civil war, asked Edward I to arbitrate between them.

Over time, the process became less about helping Scotland find a king and more about helping Edward find a loyal deputy.

By 1292 Edward was ready to give his approval to a man he thought he could trust to be his political servant, and John Balliol was crowned king of Scotland.

But in the months and years that followed, relations soon soured between them. 

Edward was perceived to have interfered with Scottish sovereignty when he intervened in a judicial matter. Balliol was perceived as traitorous when he refused to support Edward in a war with France, and then signed a defence pact with the French king.

War broke out between England and Scotland in 1296, and Balliol was eventually captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Map of the English War against Scotland in 1296
In 1296 atrocities were committed on both sides: the Scots burnt down a priory in Cumbria killing 200 boys; the English killed many in Berwick (image from 'Stirling Bridge and Falkirk' by Peter Armstrong © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

The whereabouts of Wallace at this time are unknown, but, given the leadership skills he displayed at Stirling, it is very likely he had had prior military experience.

He may have fought with Edward's forces in Wales or on the continent, and probably against them in the war of 1296.

Now, with the English king missing in action, and his delegates clumsily filing over the bridge ahead, it was the perfect moment to strike.

With a third of the English forces now over the Bridge and cut off from reinforcements, Murray and Wallace gave the order to rush them.

In an instant, more than 6,000 Scots swept down from the base of Abbey Craig and slammed into their exposed enemies.

3D map of the Battle of Stirling in 1297
The Scots, in blue, dashed down the slope and pushed the English forces (shown in red) back into the neck of the river (image from 'Stirling Bridge and Falkirk' by Peter Armstrong © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

The schiltrons formed up, no doubt bristling like porcupines, six lines deep, with the better-armoured men at the front.

Wallace and Murray likely swept down on horseback along with the rest of the Scottish cavalry, hacking at any enemy soldiers unlucky enough to be caught in the open.

Across the bridge, the remaining English forces helplessly watched as the Scots made quick work of slaughtering their comrades and forcing them into the river, where most, encumbered by heavy weapons, clothing, and armour, were drowned.

Artist's depiction of the Battle of Stirling in 1297
Scottish 'sciltrons' ambush English crossing the bride - Wallace and Murray are on horseback, in red and white, respectively (image from 'Stirling Bridge and Falkirk' by Peter Armstrong © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Braveheart Freedom

After Stirling, Edward was forced to re-engage with the war in Scotland and Wallace suffered defeat at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298. Murray, meanwhile, had died from injuries sustained at Stirling.

Wallace was captured in 1305 and put through a grisly execution at the Tower of London, his body 'quartered' and limbs dispatched for display in Newcastle, Berwick, Perth, and Stirling.

So the Scots were down - but they weren't out.

In 1314, another icon of Scottish history, Robert the Bruce, emerged victorious at the Battle of Bannockburn, his feat of splitting an English knight's head in two with his axe becoming as legendary as Wallace's victory at Stirling. 

The Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton subsequently acknowledged an independent Scotland and its king, Robert I, as ruler.

For more about Stirling Bridge and Falkirk, see Pete Armstrong's book. For more about the Battle of Bannockburn, click here. And to learn more about military history, visit Osprey Publishing's website.

The Battle of Stirling as it was portrayed (inaccurately) in Braveheart

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