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A Window into War: The Battle of Falkirk

For centuries prior to the Union of England and Scotland in 1603, there was a bitter rivalry between the two countries. King Edward, I of England in particular, despised the Scots and sought to rule over them, earning himself the nickname ‘Hammer of the Scots’. It was during his reign that the First War of Scottish Independence began, resulting in some battles between the English and the Scottish armies. One such battle was the Battle of Falkirk in 1298, which would prove to be a significant English victory in a war that would eventually be won by the Scots.

Historians have given Edward I the nickname 'The Hammer of the Scots'

Historians have given Edward I the nickname ‘The Hammer of the Scots’

It all began in 1286 when Alexander III of Scotland died without a male heir. He was succeeded by his three-year-old granddaughter Margaret, whose reign lasted for four years before her death in 1290 left Scotland without a strong leader, leading to a succession dispute known as the Great Cause. Two claimants to the throne were there Robert de Brus, the grandfather of Robert the Bruce, who would go on to become King of Scots and John Balliol. On the request of the Scottish Magnates, King Edward I of England agreed to settle the matter. Edward had only one condition – to be recognised as Scotland’s feudal overlord. Though initially reluctant, the Scots agreed to his demand, and King Edward ruled in favour of John Balliol, the new King John of Scotland.

Unfortunately, King John’s reign was not to last for long. Within four years of his ascension, John allied with the French and launched an attack on Carlisle Castle in Cumbria. The attack was unsuccessful but incurred the wrath of King Edward, who retaliated by invading Berwick. The Scots were defeated, and King John taken to the Tower of London, where he remained until he was exiled to France in 1299. John made no attempt to help the Scots after his capture and subsequent release, and as feudal overlord, King Edward ruled over Scotland.

But in 1297, a new Scottish leader emerged in the form of William Wallace. He put up a resistance against English rule in Scotland, and later that year, an army led by Wallace and Andrew Moray defeated the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. The loss was a major blow for the English and for King Edward, who was in Flander, campaigning against the French, when he heard the news.

Wanting to avenge the devastating defeat at Stirling Bridge, King Edward himself marched north to Scotland at the helm of an army that comprised around 1,500 mounted men-at-arms and over 12,000-foot soldiers. By comparison, the Scottish army had only 7,000 men, and to keep the English at bay, Wallace undertook a ‘scorched earth’ campaign. Entire forests and fields were razed to the ground, with the hope that Edward’s army would starve in the absence of any food. It almost worked – by the time the army reached Edinburgh, they were exhausted, and the King was on the verge of calling off the battle. But when he realised that the Scottish army had set up camp in Falkirk, less than 15 miles away, he chose to stay and fight.

On the eve of the battle, there was a skirmish between the English cavalry and the Welsh infantry. Although the riot was broken up, 80 Welshmen were killed. By the next morning, however, order was restored, and on July 22nd, King Edward’s cavalry advanced on the Scottish army.

When they saw the English advancing, Wallace’s men formed themselves into defensive positions known as schiltrons, with their spears pointing outward. Unable to break this formation, Edward’s knights retreated, and in their place came the bowmen. One of the first times that the English longbow was used in battle, the arrows quickly tore through the Scottish army. With their enemy’s formation broken, the English cavalry charged once again, and the Scottish army was defeated and driven from the field.

William Wallace escaped. A few weeks later, he resigned as Guardian of Scotland in favour of the future King, Robert the Bruce. For the next seven years, Wallace managed to evade capture by the English until at last, in 1305, he was captured, tried and then hung, drawn and quartered.

Despite their victory at Falkirk, Edward of England’s army was forced to retreat. Hunger and fatigue had weakened the men, and the lack of supplies meant that they were unable to continue the campaign further into Scotland. The First War of Scottish Independence continued for a good many years, even after Edward I’s death. It finally came to end when the English army, led by King Edward’s son, Edward II, was defeated at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

Photo credit: “Gal nations edward i” by Unknown – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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