the Battle of Falkirk, 1298
The Battle of Falkirk, 1298Posted on Thursday 25th May 2017
The Battle of Falkirk, which took place on 22 July 1298, was one of the most important engagements of the Scottish Wars of Independence. While it is not as well-known today as the later clash at Bannockburn, by medieval standards it was a very large battle, with thousands of men fighting on both sides. Falkirk was also significant because it involved two of the most famous personalities in medieval British history: King Edward I of England and Sir William Wallace.
Setting the Scene
Edward invaded Scotland for the first time in 1296, having previously attempted to assert his claim to ‘superior lordship’ by more subtle means. His initial campaign was crushingly successful. The King of Scots, John Balliol, was forced to give up his throne; he was taken as a prisoner to England and never returned to Scotland (although he eventually died in France). Many Scottish nobles were also taken into captivity, and Edward filled the resulting power vacuum by imposing a new regime. However, the exactions and brutality of Edward’s officials soon provoked risings in various parts of Scotland. Two of the rebel leaders became increasingly prominent: Andrew Murray achieved a great reputation in the north, while this period also marked the emergence of William Wallace further south.
Murray and Wallace came from very different backgrounds – the former was a member of a well-established noble family, whereas the latter was born a commoner – but in time they formed an effective partnership, joining forces for a siege of Dundee. In September 1297 they won a spectacular victory over English forces at Stirling Bridge, and most of Scotland slipped out of Edward’s control. Murray, however, was badly wounded and later died of his injuries, leaving Wallace as the pre-eminent Scottish leader; he was knighted by one of the Scottish nobles and formally acknowledged as sole Guardian. Later in the year the Scots raided northern England, effectively enabling Wallace to maintain his army at English expense.
The English response was hindered because Edward I was then in Flanders, engaged in an abortive expedition against the French. However, in the spring of 1298 he returned to England, now determined upon vengeance against the Scots. In the summer he assembled a huge army, including around 3,000 cavalry and 20,000 infantry (of whom over 12,000 were Welsh). Edward crossed the border in early July. By the middle of the month he was established at Kirkliston, to the west of Edinburgh, but Wallace and the Scottish army were nowhere to be seen. Moreover, there were logistical issues and the supply chain failed, which meant that food had to be strictly rationed.
Soon the Welsh troops were on the point of mutiny - following the suppression of a drunken fracas in which some of them were killed - and Edward made plans to withdraw. The situation changed again, though, on 21 July, when he received news that Scottish forces had at last been sighted; presumably Wallace had hoped to take the English army unawares, but his plans had now been foiled. ‘May God be praised’, Edward is said to have exclaimed, ‘for he has solved all my problems’.
On the evening of 21 July, the English camped near Linlithgow. Wary now of the prospect of a surprise assault, they spent the night arrayed for battle. The lords and men-at-arms apparently wore their armour, with their horses tethered by their sides. But one of Edward’s squires was careless in his duties: a horse stepped on the king, injuring his ribs. In the resulting commotion the English came to believe they were under attack, and panic could easily have ensued. But Edward was able to calm the situation. Doubtless gritting his teeth, he also successfully conveyed the impression that he was not seriously hurt – even though he must surely have experienced considerable pain. Edward could take consolation, however, from the certain knowledge that his enemies were now close at hand.
Preparations for Battle
On the following morning, the English left their camp at dawn. Their route to Falkirk from Linlithgow would have taken them across the River Avon close to Manuel Priory (near the village of Whitecross), before taking the higher ground towards Redding Muir. It was probably here where, according to the English chronicler Walter of Guisborough, Edward’s vanguard encountered a force of spearmen. Evidently this was not the main Scottish army, as the English initially supposed, because when Edward’s vanguard advanced up the hill the spearmen quickly melted away. Presumably the Scots in question were in fact a small party of scouts, who now provided warning of the English advance.
When Edward himself reached the crest of the hill a tent was pitched so that he could pause to hear mass. From this vantage point the English could now see the rest of the Scottish army, hurriedly engaged in manoeuvres, as the Scots prepared for battle. In the absence of archaeological evidence, our knowledge of the ensuing events is also derived largely from chronicles. The location of the Scottish position has not been determined with certainty - the site of the battle is still not marked on modern Ordnance Survey maps - but it is generally accepted that the Scottish army was drawn up to the south of Falkirk, about a mile to the north-west of Redding Muir. Guisborough tells us that the Scots took position on a hill, which has been identified as the ridge to the south of Callendar Wood (an area now occupied by Woodend Farm Riding School). The Glen and Westquarter Burns flow through the valley below. At the time of the battle the confluence of the two burns appears to have formed a boggy loch, at first undetected by the English, which then covered part of the valley floor.
Denied the element of surprise, which had now passed to Edward, Wallace adopted defensive tactics. According to Guisborough Wallace drew up his spearmen, which formed the bulk of his army, in four large circles called schiltroms. Each of the four circles was ‘made up wholly of spearmen, standing shoulder to shoulder in deep ranks and facing towards the circumference of the circle, with their spears slanted outwards at an oblique angle’. This would suggest that the Scots’ flanks were not protected by geographical features, and that Wallace was expecting attacks from all sides. Another chronicler, William Rishanger, adds the detail that the Scots attempted to fortify their position by means of ropes and stakes, although this is not corroborated by Guisborough’s more detailed account.
It should not be assumed that Scottish spearmen adopted circular formations on every occasion (as is sometimes supposed), but this was obviously a sensible disposition for dismounted soldiers to take up when they were likely to face attacks from waves of cavalry; contemporary Flemish armies adopted similar tactics when fighting defensive battles against the French. But of course Wallace’s spearmen were not the only troops at his disposal. There was also a contingent of bowmen (though it was probably not as numerous as Wallace would have liked) and a small force of cavalry (which was presumably made up of noblemen and their retinues). The archers were apparently positioned in the spaces between the schiltroms; the cavalry were stationed on the flanks, to the rear.
It appears that the mood in the Scottish camp was grim, but stoically determined. Wallace’s quip to his men, as recorded by Rishanger, has justly become famous: ‘I have brought you to the ring; hop [dance] if you can’
Having surveyed the Scottish dispositions (as Guisborough tells the story), Edward became cautious; initially he gave orders to call a halt, in order to make time for sustenance and rest. His army it should be remembered, had been on the road since early in the morning, covering a distance of several miles, and Edward was mindful that his men had not eaten since the previous day. But his barons were still apprehensive about the possibility that the Scots could attack and take the English unawares. In truth, assuming that the battlefield has been correctly identified, Wallace’s position on this occasion was not really well-suited to unexpected rapid manoeuvres. Perhaps surprisingly, however, Edward deferred to his subordinates’ concerns. Invoking the Holy Trinity, he now ordered an immediate assault.
‘Like Blossoms in an Orchard’
Edward himself would also have ridden towards the Scots, surrounded and protected by carefully chosen members of his household, although he did not lead the advance in person. Judging from Guisborough’s account, which can be partly corroborated by the Falkirk Roll of Arms, it appears that Edward led the third of four battalions of cavalry in column, with the Earl of Surrey commanding the reserve. Edward’s banner would provide a point of focus and inspiration on the field, but it was common for a medieval general to hold himself somewhat aloof in a battle – at least at first.
The first battalion of cavalry was commanded by the Earls of Norfolk, Hereford and Lincoln; the second was led by the Bishop of Durham. The vanguard encountered the loch, and they were forced to make a substantial detour, but the Bishop of Durham’s battalion followed a more direct route across the Westquarter Burn. It is said that the bishop, feeling dangerously exposed, sought to restrain his men, instructing them to wait for the king’s division; presumably the infantry were also following some way behind. However, one of Bek’s knights, a Yorkshiremen by the name of Sir Ralph Basset, was scornful of the bishop’s caution. Taunting Bek, he urged the bishop to return to his mass, while Basset and his companions would do all that was necessary to prove one’s knightly courage. At this the bishop’s men pushed on towards the Scottish army.
As the cavalry neared the ranks of the schiltroms, riding in a tightly packed formation, the Scottish archers would have unleashed a last desperate volley of arrows – but there is no indication to suggest the English attack was stalled. The spearmen themselves, with the butts of their twelve-foot weapons thrust firmly into the ground, presented more formidable opposition. If the ranks of spearmen had wavered then this would have provided an opportunity for the cavalry to drive their horses into any gaps that appeared, thereby breaking up the Scottish formations. But the cavalry were unable to find any weak points – at least not at this stage.
The first English assault on the schiltroms was therefore repulsed, but most of the sources indicate that the Scottish cavalry acquitted themselves much less bravely than the spearmen. The role envisaged by Wallace is unclear, because it is implied in several of the chronicles that they fled the field almost immediately in the face of the English advance. But not all of the Scottish nobles fled with the cavalry, and at least some remained to fight on with the foot. Rather confusingly, Guisborough appears to suggest that some of them drew up the infantry into new schiltroms; this has led Professor A.A.M. Duncan to argue that it was not until this point that the Scots adopted circular formations. Some of the Scottish archers, now also driven to fighting hand-to-hand, were rallied by Sir John Stewart; but Sir John was quickly killed, and many of the archers were cut down by English knights.
The Lanercost Chronicle implies that the English cavalry did most of the fighting at Falkirk – attacking from all sides, as Wallace probably feared – although the narratives by Guisborough and Rishanger suggest that Edward’s infantry also played a crucial role. It appears the cavalry drew off, but the static Scottish formations were now at the mercy of Edward’s archers and crossbowmen - as well as others who hurled stones. Gaps then appeared, providing an opportunity for the cavalry to charge again and force themselves amidst the Scottish ranks. There is evidence to suggest that Edward’s infantry also fought hand-to-hand: the millenar William de Felton – an officer in charge of 1,000 men - lost his horse at Falkirk, which might imply that he led his men into the fray and that they were consequently heavily engaged.
The Scots were now assailed from all side, and almost certainly grievously outnumbered, but Lanercost acknowledges that those who remained ‘stood their ground and fought manfully’. Eventually, however, the Scots’ losses took their toll, and the survivors broke and ran. Casualties in a rout were almost always heavy; noblemen, if they were fortunate, might be taken into captivity (honourable or otherwise), but the rank and file were often slaughtered without mercy. The Scottish fugitives were gleefully pursued by Edward’s cavalry, as well as the Welsh infantry (notwithstanding their truculent attitude before the battle). In the words of Rishanger, the Scots ‘fell like blossoms in an orchard when the fruit has ripened’.
Wallace escaped to fight again another day, but the field was now covered with the bodies of many of his followers. Guisborough and Rishanger provide absurd numbers – 56,000 and 100,000, respectively – but we must surely assume that thousands were killed. On the English side, the author of the Lanercost Chronicle was pleased to note ‘there were no noble men killed … except the Master of the Templars [Sir Brian Jay] and five or six esquires’, but of course this does not account for fatalities among the infantry. Records show that that over 3,000 of the infantry were suddenly removed from the pay roll. As historian Fiona Watson has put it, ‘we are left to draw the inevitable conclusion that these men fell at Falkirk, the silent, but significant, casualties of an English victory’.
English writers celebrated Falkirk as a great triumph, avenging the defeat at Stirling Bridge, but it had come at a considerable cost – and the battle did not come close to ending the war. Wallace resigned as Guardian (perhaps he was forced to do so), but other men took on his mantle and continued the struggle for several more years. A series of gruelling campaigns eventually forced the submission of many leading Scots, and Wallace’s execution in 1305 was supposed to provide a symbolic end to the conflict, but when Robert the Bruce claimed the Scottish throne the war began again. Edward I made a final attempt to subdue the Scots in the summer of 1307, setting out from Carlisle on yet another campaign, but the effects of age and illness prevented him from even crossing the border. He died at Burgh by Sands on 6 July, bitterly aware that a final victory remained as distant as ever.
A modern statue of Edward I at Burgh by Sands (Rose and Trev Clough)
A contemporary illustration of a battle from the Queen Mary Psalter (British Library)
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