The Battle of Stirling Bridge
The more I study the history of war, the more it becomes apparent that most military leaders got their position through politics or connections, rarely through military prowess. The results are usually predictable, in fact for the most part I think victory in most wars and battles is determined by who made the fewest stupid mistakes. Even worse, I think just by chance some people win a few and then get promoted far beyond their capability, thus ensuring an eventual catastrophe of historical proportions. If a Sargent makes a dumb mistake, him and dozens of others may die. If a general makes a dumb mistake, the sky’s the limit. Battles have been lost, wars have been lost, nations have been lost … all because someone in charge did something so stupid as to defy belief.
Believe it. Here, in the first of a series, battles where the people in charge made mistakes that were obvious to those around them. Yes, in every one of these battles there were intelligent educated people (like the readers of Doug’s Darkworld for example) standing around saying “This is a bad idea my Lord.” In this case they were saying it in an thick English accent while standing in the mud and gorse near the town of Stirling, Scotland. Yes, the Battle of Stirling Bridge is about to begin, and no, it’s nothing like how it was depicted in Braveheart.
OK, brief background. England had conquered Scotland in 1296. The Scots revolted, and the First War of Scottish Independence was on. An English army under the command of the Seventh Earl of Surrey, John de Warenne, was advancing into Scotland. The Earl had crushed the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar, and seemed to believe he was facing only rabble. And he was accompanied by one Hugh de Cressingham, the King’s treasurer for Scotland. Cressingham was along to make sure no money was wasted and the war was won cheaply and quickly. He was despised by the Scots, and not particularly well liked by the English either. When Surrey’s army got to Stirling, the gateway to the Highlands, there was one small bridge across the River Forth. The Scots army under the command of William Wallace was on the other side. The English clearly had a vastly superior force, several thousand mounted knights and ten thousand or more infantry. The Scots had a few thousand pikemen and maybe a few hundred mounted knights. Both armies stared at each across the river for several days, the English hoping that the Scots could be talked into surrendering.
No such luck. On the morning of September 11th the Earl decided to cross the river and deal with this Scots rabble. Apparently under intense pressure and advice from Cressingham, who was eager to press forward and win this quickly. I mean, all these soldiers were costing money! This is the point where people standing around started saying things like “Um, my lord … a word.” One turncoat Scottish knight in particular, Sir Richard Lundie, pointed out that just a few miles away was a ford where sixty riders could cross abreast. Wouldn’t it make sense to send some knights to cross there and flank the Scots, instead of sending everyone across a narrow wooden bridge? Cressingham however would have no more delays, and the army began to cross the river.
The Scots could hardly believe their luck, and far from being a rabble, they were a displined fighting force under the able command of William Wallace (he wasn’t even a knight then.) Wallace bided his time and struck. In fact by some accounts the bridge had been previously weakened and Scots soldiers were hiding under it to knock it down when the time was ripe. In any event, after about half the English army had crossed, Wallace and his men charged. They quickly seized the bridgehead, preventing more English troops from crossing, and forming a wall of pikes facing any English soldier trying to flee. Exactly one English knight, Sir Marmaduke Tweng, managed to fight his way through the Scots pikemen and across the bridge to safety. Now that must have been some scene, like something out of Lord of the Rings.
The English army on the safe side of the river, upon seeing their brethren trapped and being massacred by rampaging Scots, did what so many armies have done under similar circumstances. They turned and ran back to England. Very few of the Engliish who had crossed the river made it back alive to join them. The Earl was left with the unpleasant task of explaining to the King just how badly he had screwed up. He managed to do so though and continued to command armies for the King. Wallace was knighted for his stunning victory, and though he eventually lost the war and was captured and executed, his place in history was secure.
Hugh de Cressingham however was spared the trouble of explaining himself to anyone. In his eagerness to move things along, he had been one of the first to cross the bridge. He was not one of the few that made it back to safety. In fact, by all accounts, his skin was flayed and cut into souveniers by the victorious Scots. Some accounts even claim that William Wallace had a sword belt made from a strip of Cressingham’s flayed skin. That’s one way to go down in history I suppose.
For first time readers, welcome to Doug’s Darkworld. This post is one of my most popular posts of all time, if you liked it you might also like The Battle of the Crater, The Spanish Armada, and The Battle of Lissa, When Ironclads Ruled the Seas. A number of Doug’s Darkworld posts are available in a more organized fashion on the Doug’s Darkworld Annex. I am a professional writer and my commercial site is Doug Stych, Writer-at-Large. Peace.
(The above image of William Wallace is believed to be public domain under US copyright law as it predates 1927. It’s an eighteenth or nineteenth century woodcut of unknown origin. Can you see the resemblance to Mel Gibson? Me neither. And no, Scots warriors stopped wearing blue face paint about a thousand years before the Battle of Stirling Bridge. And on a final curious note, William Wallace’s sword still exists, the damn thing is five foot six inches long, Wallace must have been a big guy.)