Saturday, 11 September 2010

Stirling Bridge - The build up to war 1296

The Battle of Stirling Bridge has a place in Scottish folklore. After years of growing English influence and interference in the affairs of Scotland, the ordinary people rose against the outsiders. At Stirling Bridge the men of Scotland proved they could defeat the English.

After the Battle of The Standard, Scotland underwent dramatic changes. The Western Isles were won back from the independent power of the Viking Lord of the Isles and the outer islands taken from the Norwegian kings. Loyalty to the Scottish king was enforced throughout the Highlands, though the semi-independent chieftains continued to make their own laws and to fight their own private wars.

Successive kings gave a number of Anglo-Norman knights lands in Scotland and made them powerful nobles. In return the nobles taught the Lowland Scots the new tactics of mounted warfare from Europe. Among the most powerful of this new barony were the Bruce and Balliol families, both originally from Normandy but now based largely in England. These families held lands in both England and Scotland, which fact did not matter much while the two kingdoms were at peace with each other, but was to prove a cause of some trouble in the future. Opposed to what was seen as inroads of English culture and sympathy which these men represented were the old nobility of the Picts, Scots and Britons led by the Comyn family.

In 1286 disaster struck Scotland. King Alexander III died when his horse stumbled over a cliff. The only legitimate heir was his infant granddaughter, Margaret, who was in Norway. A Regency Council was established to rule the kingdom until “The Maid of Norway”, as she was known, was adult.

It was at this point that King Edward I of England took a hand. The Kings of England were now far more powerful than they previously were. They had inherited vast lands in France  and had almost entirely subdued the Welsh. The English economy was booming and the population was increasing rapidly. Filled with self-confidence and a belief in the power of England, King Edward saw the Scots’ misfortune as an opportunity. He suggested that his son, the future Edward II, should marry young Queen Margaret. The Scots nobles extracted a promise that Scots laws and customs would be respected, and then agreed.

But in 1290 the Maid of Norway died. There was no direct heir and no fewer than 12 Scottish nobles announced that they had a claim to the throne. Unable to resolve the conflicting claims by themselves, the Scots asked King Edward to choose the rightful king. In November, at Berwick Castle, Edward rejected the claims of all except John Balliol and Robert Bruce, both of them from the new Anglo-Norman nobility. Edward finally chose Balliol as the King of Scotland, having first extracted a promise from Balliol that he would recognise Edward as his overlord.

Neither Balliol nor the other Scottish nobles thought the promise anything more than a vague undertaking not to attack England. But Edward was taking it seriously and began issuing orders to Balliol. In 1296 the Scots repudiated the agreement, signed an alliance with France and began preparing for war. Edward, however, moved first. He captured and destroyed Berwick then led his army into Scotland before his enemies could gather enough men to face him. The few Scots who had mustered to defend Edinburgh were brushed aside in a fight on the banks of the Spotts Burn near Dunbar. Balliol was captured and sent to the Tower of London. To show his determination that Scottish independence was over, Edward removed from Scone Abbey the sacred stone on which all Kings of Scots had been crowned. He sent it to Westminster Abbey to be placed beneath his own throne.

In the autumn of 1296 Edward returned to England. He left behind John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, who had won the fight at Dunbar, together with a tax official named Cressingham and a lawyer Ormsby. Unfortunately for all concerned, Surrey promptly fell ill and for months was unable to leave his room. This left Scotland in the hands of Cressingham whose greed for other people’s money was legendary and Ormsby who knew little about Scots law and cared less. By the time Surrey had recovered to realise how his subordinates were behaving it was too late. Scotland was in revolt.

Most of the Anglo-Norman nobility of the Lowlands remained quiet, worried about their lucrative estates, but the Douglas and Stewart families expelled English garrisons from their lands and Robert Bruce, son of the Bruce who had lost the throne to Balliol, soon joined them. The heart of the rebellion, however, was in the wilder hill country around Selkirk and Moray. The rising in Moray was led by a knight named Sir William Murray and that around Selkirk by another member of the minor gentry – Sir William Wallace.

Wallace’s background is rather obscure. He had received an education typical of the less wealthy knights of the time and had certainly travelled beyond his own country. His surname marks him out as a member of an old Strathclyde family which could trace its ancestry back to the days before Strathclyde was ruled by the King of Scots. He is said to have held lands in Renfrewshire, but is also linked to lands around Stirling.

Wherever he came from, Wallace got involved in a fight with some English soldiers near Dundee. It is said one of them insulted or struck Wallace’s wife, for which the Scotsman killed him. Instantly outlawed, Wallace took to the hills and gathered a band of other Scots who had suffered at the hands of the English. He led a successful raid on English barracks at Ayr, then captured and burnt Lanark where he executed the English sheriff Hazelrigg. By August 1297 Wallace had joined forces with Murray and had captured or expelled all the English north of the Forth except those at Dundee,which he had under siege.

Faced by a popular revolt, Surrey gathered the English soldiers in Scotland together and marched to Irvine, where he forced the submission of most Scottish nobles, before moving on to relieve Dundee. At Stirling, Surrey found his path blocked by the army of Wallace.

This is an extract from England vs Scotland by Rupert Matthews


  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.