The Battle of Falkirk
Dr Callum Watson, Battle Coordinator
22 Jul 2018
‘Now Dance If You Can’: Battle of Falkirk, 22nd July 1298
On this day (22nd July) in 1298 the Battle of Falkirk was fought. The outcome was a major boost to the English and a serious blow to the Scots, but most importantly of all it was an absolute disaster for the Scottish commander Sir William Wallace, who as a result of this defeat lost his position as Guardian of Scotland. It did not however dampen the resolve of either the Scots in general or Wallace in particular to continue resisting the English.
Since the death of Alexander III in 1286, King Edward I of England had demonstrated an eagerness to interfere in Scottish affairs, culminating in a full-scale invasion of Scotland in 1296. The Scots were soundly defeated at the Battle of Dunbar, their king surrendered to face de-investiture and imprisonment, and the entire kingdom was occupied. King Edward’s victory seemed to have been brutal, swift and total, but it seems that this convinced him that he could behave towards the Scots however he liked. His efforts at establishing an English administration in Scotland showed a complete disregard for the sensibilities of the Scots themselves, excluding even those Scots who had supported his invasion from the government of the realm and insisting that Scotland be ruled by English laws and customs. This last point in particular rankled with the commons of Scotland, provoking widespread popular resistance to English rule. In the south of the kingdom, William Wallace – a hitherto obscure figure - quickly emerged as the natural leader of this resistance, while in the north the rebels were led by Sir Andrew Murray. In September 1297 Wallace and Murray combined their forces and inflicted a significant defeat on the English administration at Stirling Bridge (just up the road from where the Battle of Bannockburn would later be fought). In recognition of their accomplishment Wallace and Murray were appointed as Guardians of Scotland (although Murray had died by the end of the year, probably of wounds sustained at the battle) and proceeded to establish an interim government in place of the still-imprisoned King John Balliol. King Edward had been absent on the Continent when Stirling Bridge was fought, but he returned with a vengeance in spring 1298 determined to reverse this Scottish success.
As King Edward led his army into south-east Scotland, he quickly found that Wallace and his men had enacted a vigorous ‘scorched earth’ policy, destroying crops and removing livestock to make it as difficult as possible for Edward to keep his army fed. As the supply situation worsened, divisions began to appear in the English army and on 19th July a drunken set-to between the Welsh and English contingents in Edward’s army left 80 men dead! This incident seems to have provoked Edward to withdraw towards Edinburgh, possibly as a prelude to abandoning the campaign altogether, but on 21st July the English king received intelligence that Wallace’s army was only 18 miles away at Falkirk. Precisely why Wallace gave battle at Falkirk is unclear. According to the English chronicler Walter Guisborough, who offers the most detailed account of the battle, Wallace had learned that Edward’s forces were withdrawing towards Edinburgh and hoped to attack them in the rear while they were retreating. This seems plausible since until this point in the campaign Wallace appears to have resolutely avoided confronting the English openly. However, given that Wallace owed his position as guardian to his part in the victory at Stirling Bridge (and more crucially his command of the army) he may have felt compelled to prove that his success had not been a fluke to the Scottish nobility – who according to later Scottish writers were highly suspicious of the ‘low-born’ Wallace. Whatever the case, King Edward was more than willing to accommodate Wallace if he wanted to fight, and the English army moved quickly towards Falkirk.
On the day of the battle, the Scots had formed up in four schiltrons, tightly-packed oval-shaped spear formations with long spears pointing in every direction. These formations were intended to withstand the charge of heavy cavalry, which for two centuries had been the dominant tactic employed on battlefields across Western Europe. Between his schiltrons Wallace positioned archers – probably mostly recruited from Selkirk Forest – under the command of Sir John Stewart of Bonkyl (pronounced ‘Buncle’), while to the rear was stationed whatever cavalry the Scots could muster. Between the English and the Scots ran the Westquarter Burn, a shallow stream bordered by a wide, boggy area, while behind the Scots was Callander Wood – offering a handy escape route should the battle go badly for the Scots. In order to get at the Scots, the English heavy cavalry had to circumnavigate the boggy area in front of the Scots and attack them from the sides, and thus the Scots found themselves caught in a pincer movement. Half of the English cavalry – led by the earls of Norfolk, Hereford, and Lincoln – attacked from the west, while another – led by the warlike Bishop of Durham, Anthony Bek – attacked from the east. The schiltrons held firm against the cavalry, as Wallace had apparently predicted, but the Scottish archers were apparently slaughtered to a man, including even their captain Stewart of Bonkyl. The Scottish cavalry it seems fled the field altogether. It was common for medieval Scottish writers to blame the actions of the Scottish cavalry on the treachery of the Scottish nobility, who it is claimed were suspicious of Wallace for his lowly origins, or more specifically on John Comyn, who as Robert Bruce’s most bitter rival came in for a lot of character assassination in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Scottish writing. However, the reason for the flight of the Scottish cavalry at Falkirk may be simple fear, since they were more than likely hideously outnumbered by the English cavalry and many if not all of them still had recent memories of the disastrous Battle of Dunbar two years earlier.
Having seen off the Scottish archers and cavalry but being unable to penetrate the schiltrons, the English cavalry pulled back to regroup. While the cavalry were picking themselves up and arranging fresh horses, King Edward deployed his own archers – both his formidable longbowman and seasoned, possibly Continental crossbowmen – to begin peppering the schiltrons with arrows. The reason for this was perhaps as simple as a desire not to let the Scots have any time to recover themselves while the cavalry got ready for its second offensive, but this proved to be the crucial moment of the battle. Without support from their own bowmen or cavalry, the Scottish schiltrons were just big, easy, static targets for the English archers. As more and more men were wounded and killed, gaps began to form in the schiltrons that the Scots could no longer fill, and when the cavalry resumed its charge they were able to plough into these gaps and drive the schiltrons apart. A terrible slaughter ensued, nullified perhaps a little by the escape route the Scots had left themselves into Callander Wood, but there was no mistaking that this battle had been a clear defeat for the Scots.
Luckily for the Scots, defeat at Falkirk was mitigated slightly by the fact that Edward’s army had been so depleted by supply shortages that he was still forced to withdraw back to England. However, as noted above, the battle was a personal catastrophe for Wallace. He either resigned or was forced to give up the guardianship – which may confirm the notion that Wallace was only accepted by the nobility of Scotland on the strength of his military success alone – and was replaced by Robert Bruce (the future King Robert I) and John Comyn (this would seem to constitute evidence that he was not guilty of treachery in his actions at Falkirk, or else it says something peculiar about the Scots in 1298 that they would reward a traitor with joint guardianship of the kingdom!). However, Wallace continued to be a vigorous and frustrating opponent of the English in Scotland, and by 1304 he was clearly considered by Edward I to be an implacable enemy. The rest of the Scots too seemed to be determined to resist English interference north of the border. Despite their rivalry Bruce and Comyn jointly pursued a policy of opposing the extension of English authority into Scotland for a further two years before Bruce was replaced as guardian. It seems that Wallace’s brief stint at the centre of Scottish politics had demonstrated to the Scots that the English could be beaten, and convinced them that this should at least be attempted.