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The Scottish Wars of Independence: Braveheart

Updated on November 10, 2014

The Royal Coat of Arms of Scotland

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A Video showing still photos of the Sheriff Murder scene in Braveheart.

Murder a Foot

After the Scottish capitulation in 1296, Edward thought that he had managed to deal with the Scottish problem once and for all. He was the unopposed master of Scotland; no one seemed prepared to stand up to him. But just a few months later, a number of revolts broke out across the country; the most famous of these was led by William Wallace. Nearly seven hundred years later, he would come to be known as Braveheart.

Much of what we know of Wallace’s life comes from a poem written by Blind Harry, more than a century after Wallace’s death. So, much of the information presented here is speculative rather than purely factual. According to Harry the rebellion began in May 1297 at Lanark. William Wallace was born to a minor noble called Sir Malcolm Wallace of Elderslie. Neither Malcolm nor William had attached their seal to ‘The Ragman’s Roll’ a document pledging a personal oath to King Edward I of England, as a consequence both men became outlaws. Wallace’s Lover or Mistress Marion Braidfute sacrificed herself to allow Wallace escape the clutches of English Sheriff William Heselrig. The Sheriff captured her, and sentenced her to death, carrying it out himself.

In an act of revenge Wallace and a small band of loyal followers attacked Lanark, tracked down the Sheriff and killed him. The incident is said to have sparked off a larger rebellion in South West Scotland with Wallace leading men at Strathclyde. But it is important to take this information with a pinch of salt; much of it is questioned by historians. Incidentally it was Blind Harry’s poem that served as the inspiration and source for Hollywood’s portrayal of the Scottish hero.

Wallace was joined at Strathclyde by Sir William Douglas; they led their men in a devastating raid across Dumfriesshire, capturing Castles and slaughtering Edward’s supporters in the process. Then, they turned north and attacked the English Magistrate, William Ormesby at Scone. In light of the success of Wallace and Douglas’ rebellion, the nobles of South West of Scotland launched their own rebellion attacking from their own lands, but it proved to be short lived. On the 7th July 1297, the English accepted their surrender at Irvine. For Wallace, surrender was the last thing on his mind, and he was able to use the drawn out surrender negotiations to gather more men to his cause.

The Other Rebel

Sir Andrew Murray who led the rebellion in its early stages alongside Wallace.
Sir Andrew Murray who led the rebellion in its early stages alongside Wallace. | Source

The North Joins in

While Wallace was terrorising the English garrisons in the south, the rumblings of rebellion soon reached the Highlands. Sir Andrew Murray had fought with his father at Dunbar, but in the wake of defeat had been captured, taken prisoner and sent to England in chains. However, Murray managed to escape and return to his father’s land near Inverness undetected. Upon his return he discovered that all of the Castles including the ones at Inverness, Urquhart, Nairn and Banff all flew the flag of St George. Murray was incensed; he raised his family standard as a call to arms and managed to gain a tremendous amount of support. Very quickly, he was able to recapture those Castles and by July he had driven the English south of the River Tay.

A month later he moved south to threaten the towns of Dundee and Perth, it was in the aftermath of recapturing those towns that he learnt of Wallace’s rebellion. The two rebel heroes would meet for the first time at this point. By now, both men were aware of the nobles surrender at Irvine, they knew that if they wanted to pursue their desire to drive the English out of Scotland, they would have to do so alone. As a consequence both men appointed themselves the Commanders of the Army of Scotland; they pledged a solemn vow to carry on the fight in the name of King John.

Ready and Willing

Scottish Pikemen in a Schiltron Formation.
Scottish Pikemen in a Schiltron Formation. | Source

The Battle of Stirling Bridge

The English army was led by the Earl of Surrey, Edward’s lieutenant of Scotland and also by Hugh Cressingham, the Treasurer of Scotland. The Earl was a very able tactician and had led the English to victory at Dunbar, but was in poor health and had to return from recuperation in England with haste to lead the army. On the morning of the Battle he was tired, unwell and irritable. Cressingham, on the other hand was everything that Surrey wasn’t, his expertise lay in finance rather than war. He was more concerned about the financial implications of the Battle rather than the thought of glory. In fact, he had already sent some of the men home, to cut wage and food expenditure. Despite the relatively minor misgivings from Cressingham, both English Commanders were supremely confident that they would win the day; neither held any fear of either Wallace or Murray.

As the sun broke the horizon on the 11th September 1297, the English army began to cross the bridge, but it was only wide enough for a few men to cross at one time. The unwell Surrey had slept in, and thus missed the start of the Battle, so the English force was ordered back across the bridge to wait for their Commander’s arrival. When he did finally rouse and make his way to the battlefield, he ordered the men back across the bridge. But once again, the proceedings were interrupted by the arrival of the Scottish Earl of Lennox bearing a message from Wallace. Surrey assumed that Wallace was going to surrender, so he recalled the men again. But upon reading the message, he found it be of the contrary, so the men were ordered to cross for a third time. You can imagine what the soldiers were thinking at this point, it must have resembled a game of musical chairs.

Some of the English Commanders including a Scot, serving in the English ranks, Richard Lundie objected, stating that it would be madness to attempt it again. He suggested that they use a Ford that lay upstream. But Surrey and Cressingham dismissed the notion and proceeded with their original plan. Surrey didn’t think it would make much of a difference anyway, and Cressingham didn’t want to concern the Scots too much; just in case they should flee. Being the money man, he was concerned about the army being kept together for longer than anticipated, which meant more expenditure on provisions.

Meanwhile, Wallace and Murray had been watching the proceedings all morning with interest and probably amusement or bafflement. When the English crossed for the third time, Wallace was sure of the strategy that he would use. He formed his men along the causeway, a dry, wooden walkway stretching from the bridge to the town of Perth. He waited until a third of the English had crossed, then ordered his spearmen to walk forward, bunching close together, adopting a formation known as Schiltron. The objective was to charge and try to capture the end of the bridge.

Wallace waited a few moments longer, until he ordered the charge. The Scots charged ferociously, but still keeping their formation, they ploughed into the English, quickly overwhelming them. The Scots succeeded in cutting off the English force from the rest on the other side of the river. Unable to retreat, some of the English attempted escape by swimming across the river, but most of them drowned. Sir Marmaduke Tweng and his small troop of Horsemen did manage to flee, but the rest of the English were totally slaughtered, including Cressingham, a man so vilified and detested, that he was skinned and his body parts made into souvenirs.

Surrey ordered a hasty retreat, seeing that the day was lost. He led the man back to Berwick. Some of them hid in Stirling Castle, but with no reinforcements to help, they were forced to surrender control of the Castle to the Scottish.

Images of Stirling Bridge

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Memorial to a Hero

The William Wallace Memorial that overlooks Stirling Bridge.
The William Wallace Memorial that overlooks Stirling Bridge. | Source

Guardians of Scotland

The Scottish victory at Stirling was nothing short of stunning, considering that this was the same nation that had suffered such an embarrassing defeat at Dunbar a year earlier. In recognition for their efforts, the nobles of Scotland bestowed the title ‘Guardians of Scotland’ on Wallace and Murray. It may sound like the ultimate reward, but the nobles may have been using Wallace and Murray to wage the war for independence without risking their own lives. Or they may have just been simply frightened of the two men and their army, now fiercely loyal to them. Whatever the reason was, Wallace and Murray were now effectively in charge of the Scottish Government. However, Murray’s involvement must have been negligible as he died just a few weeks after the Battle, probably from wounds inflicted upon him. For historians, it was never entirely clear whether Wallace’s regime was legitimate; it seems likely that he was ruling in the name of the exiled King John.

Despite the loss of Murray, Wallace continued the fight, and indeed took the fight to the English, by carrying out a daring and devastating raid into Northern England. However, it’s not clear whether Wallace succeeded in sacking the great Northern City of York, as depicted in Braveheart. Few documents survive that give any legitimacy to Wallace’s regime, but a letter addressed to the Merchants of Lubeck and Hamburg written in October 1297 serves as a good indicator. As it states that Scotland is no longer under the dominance of England, and is once again open for business. The letter reflects the confidence that must have been oozing out of Wallace after Stirling, despite the loss of his fellow Commander; he must have felt self assured that Scotland’s future was bright.

Guardian of Scotland

A Statue of William Wallace
A Statue of William Wallace | Source

Tactics and Strategy

The Positions of the English and Scottish at Falkirk.
The Positions of the English and Scottish at Falkirk. | Source

The Battle of Falkirk

In the midst of the defeat of Stirling, King Edward had his own problems; a number of discontented Barons had risen up to rebel against their oppressive master. Fortunately for Edward, it was a rebellion that proved short lived, dying barely after it had begun. By July 1298, he had managed to recover enough to be able to assemble a considerable army to march into Scotland once more. He took 2000 Knights and Men at Arms, and almost 15,000 Footmen.

Wallace had originally not intended to meet the English on the Battlefield; instead he sent some of his men south to attack the English town of Carlisle. It seemed that the Braveheart had succeeded in outmanoeuvring his greatest enemy. But, by the end of July, the English King and Wallace would do battle. It may well be that Wallace was persuaded to attack the English due to their army suffering from fatigue and shortage of provisions. It could also be that he was goaded into it by the nobles, who may have felt it was unchilvarous not to fight the English, although that sounds quite strange to me.

At first glance, the Battlefield at Falkirk looked like a positive position for Wallace. He had placed his men in three circular Schiltrons facing the enemy. He decided to position his Archers between the Schiltrons in order to protect them from the English Bowmen. The Scottish Cavalry were placed on each flank to protect the Archers from being mowed down by the English Cavalry. Despite his confidence, Wallace had considered the possibility of defeat and ensured that his men could retreat to the safety of the woods that lay behind them. Like their Commander, the Army was confident in itself and in victory. They had used the previous winter to train up by practicing formations, learning their positions and their roles in the Battle. Contrary to popular belief, the Scottish Archers were just as good as their English counterparts, the only difference was numbers, the English had more, simple as that. The same applied to the Knights and the Men at Arms. Despite the contrast in numbers, the Scottish Army was well positioned, defensive, dug in and protected by large stakes driven into the ground.

The Battle commenced; the English Cavalry charged into both of the Scottish flanks at the same time. The Scots Cavalry couldn’t stand up to the superior numbers and were defeated so rapidly, that it later gave rise to tales of the Scottish simply fleeing the Battlefield. The Nobles probably fled quickly, so as to save themselves for another fight at a later date. The English Knights then attacked the Schiltrons, but couldn’t penetrate the thick wall of Scottish spears. With the Cavalry absent, the Scottish Archers were defenceless, and were mowed down like grass by the English. The Knights were still having trouble with the Scottish Spear wall, so they withdrew slightly, waiting for their Foot Soldiers to catch up. Without their Archers, the Scots had to endure a barrage of Arrows from the English, the stakes made any sort of evasion impossible, the casualties rose exponentially. The survivors could not keep to their rigid formation, as the Knights charged again. They were able to exploit the gaps that had opened up in the Scottish ranks; the result was absolute carnage, thousands died. Wallace and most of his Commanders manage to flee to the relative safety of the woods, but the damage was done, Wallace’s reputation was in tatters, his confidence shattered. Blaming himself for the tragedy, he resigned as Guardian of Scotland.

The Falkirk Cairn

The Falkirk Cairn, was erected in July 2007 to commemorate those who lost their lives at Falkirk.
The Falkirk Cairn, was erected in July 2007 to commemorate those who lost their lives at Falkirk. | Source

The End for Braveheart

The Scottish Fight on

After Wallace’s resignation, the nobles placed their trust in John Comyn and Robert Bruce, but these men were bitter adversaries, having been rivals for the Scottish crown in 1292. In 1299 a Scottish delegation approached Pope Boniface IV to lobby him for an alliance against Edward; they hoped to secure the release of King John to the authority of the Papacy.

Meanwhile, back in Scotland rumours began to spread of the return of the King at the head of a French army, and this gave the Scots the incentive needed to fight on. Bruce however, was none too keen at the thought of his rival’s return, as it would eliminate any possibility of him claiming the crown. So, he decided to resign his Guardianship and in 1302, he would switch sides and pledge loyalty to Edward.

The English King continued the war against Scotland, capturing Caerlaverock Castle and defeating a small army on the River Cree. He followed that up with further raids in 1301 and 1302. Comyn and his new fellow Guardian John Soules refused to do Battle with Edward, gradually retreating north, encouraging the English to back down as a bitter Scottish winter neared. The only pitched Battle occurred in 1303, The Battle of Roslin, where Comyn succeeded in wiping out a small English force. The Guardians were doing the best they could under the circumstances, and were further bolstered by the return of William Wallace, albeit not as leader. The nobles sent diplomatic missions to France and Rome, still hopeful that their King would return, and also that finally Edward could be persuaded to finally acknowledge Scotland’s independence.

The final invasion conducted by Edward I would see his forces across the Forth in the winter of 1303 and 1304, for the first time, he intended to take the war right into the heart of John Comyn’s lands. He wintered down in Fife, so as to keep the pressure up on the Scottish. The nobles’ hope of assistance from France died when the French King was forced to sign a treaty with Edward that did not include Scotland. The garrison that held Stirling since 1297, surrendered in 1304. By then, Comyn and most of his other leaders had also given up and agreed terms with Edward. The only exceptions were Wallace and Soules who remained resolved to carry on the fight. The failure to muster help from the French now meant that King John was unlikely to return. William Wallace was not included in the peace terms and was not allowed to surrender, not that he wanted to anyway. He decided to continue fighting while on the run, but was eventually betrayed by Sir John Mentieth in 1305. The English had finally got their man; he was taken to London, and put on trial on the 23rd August of that year. Well, I say trial; it was really more of a statement of the charges against him, and a summary of his execution sentence. Wallace was hung, drawn and quartered; his limbs were hung on towers in various locations in England and Scotland to serve as a warning to anyone who dared defy the English King.

Braveheart

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    • Alastar Packer profile image

      Alastar Packer 5 years ago from North Carolina

      I want to let you know how pleasing this article was to read. I think it is an intensely interesting picture of the William Wallace story with much that is new here. Welcome to the Hubs JKenny.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks a lot Alastar, I really enjoyed writing it, learning about the man, and that period in history. Thanks again for your kind words, much appreciated.

    • profile image

      KatrineDalMonte 5 years ago

      James, an excellent article. Packed with fact-based information. History is such fascinating subject, one can never read enough. Thanks for the insight on this part of the Scottish history.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Katrine, I love seeing people enjoying my work. I love writing about History, because I learn, as I write. I really appreciate you taking the time to visit and comment. Take care.

    • angie ashbourne profile image

      angie ashbourne 5 years ago

      Hi! JKenney I enjoyed reading your Hub.. The movie was great. Angie

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Angie, thanks for taking the time to read my hub. I wholeheartedly agree with you, Braveheart is an awesome film, people still talk about it today.

    • BRIAN SLATER profile image

      Brian Slater 5 years ago from Nottingham Uk

      An excellent easy to read history article. I thoroughly enjoyed it and learnt quite abit also. Voted up and shared and thanks for the follow.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      No problem, Brian. I really enjoyed reading, it was such a fascinating period in history. Thanks for the vote and the share.

    • ziyena profile image

      ziyena 5 years ago from Southern Colorado

      JKenny

      I love Scottish history.

      I can always refer back to this article for my historical romance research. A vote UP and a PIN

      Z

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks ziyena, it's such a fascinating period in history. I only wish that Wallace had lived to see Scotland finally defeat England in 1328, the way he was treated by Edward was disgusting. I really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. Oh, and thanks for the follow and the pin

    • alian346 profile image

      alian346 4 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      Edward Longshanks was indeed a horrible man. 'Braveheart', the movie, was a passionate effort that kindled the fires of Scottish hearts even though it was historic rubbish.

      And your Hub, young man, has explored the little we know of Wallace and his time in a very interesting and readable way. Well done!

      Independence is coming!

      Ian.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Ian, it's a shame that we don't know more about Wallace's early life; he was such a remarkable man, and 'Braveheart', I would say was more about the legend of Wallace, rather than a historical narrative, and in that sense it worked perfectly. Thanks for dropping by.

    • alian346 profile image

      alian346 4 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      I agree that the movie was very rousing, patriotic and about the legend which is Wallace. But I did find certain parts of it a bit historically squirmy.

      The SNP certainly used it to great effect!

      Ian.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      They certainly have, and I think Scotland will regain its independence in the near future. Some people are concerned about it, but when you think about it, Scotland governed itself for centuries, long before the thought of a United Kingdom ever surfaced. So independence will simply mark a return to the norm for Scotland.

    • alian346 profile image

      alian346 4 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      We have a very shrewd and canny First Minister here, as you'll know. As a politician he is head and shoulders above any other in the UK at present.

      So watch this space!

      Ian.

    • Sethughes profile image

      Sethughes 4 years ago

      This was an awesome and informative hub. I love medieval history and the Braveheart story is great. Ive always wondered about the whole story of Scotland and the validity of the movie.

      Thanks for this! Voted up and sharing

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks very much Seth, yes the Braveheart film was good, but much of it was pure fantasy taken from a poem. In a way its a shame we'll never really know the real William Wallace. But I like to think of him as a defiant hero. Thanks again.

    • Jason Marovich profile image

      Jason Marovich 4 years ago from United States

      This an excellent article for those who, like me, want to learn more about Scotland's struggles for Independence. The William Wallace portrayed in Braveheart is one of my favorite characters in cinema. I enjoy reading your material here about the factual basis for the movie. And the Scottish pictures are incredible.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks very much Jason, for me William Wallace is one of the best characters in all of history. A man who wasn't prepared to accept the status quo. Its just a shame that he never got the chance to see his dream realised.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 4 years ago from Oakley, CA

      An excellent history, indeed. Well done! I have always mistrusted Hollywood's versions of history, but considering the dearth of actual information from the Scot's side, save for a belated poem, I suppose they did a fair job of the portrayal in this case.

      Since history is written by the winners, there is always a fair amount of disinformation and skewed half-truths.

      Voted up, interesting and shared.

    • Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

      Pamela Kinnaird W 4 years ago from Maui and Arizona

      Perth, Inverness, Stirling Castle -- these all jump up at me as I was enjoying this complicated article. These are places of my Kinnaird ancestry. This was very interesting. Voting up, awesome and interesting.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Lizzy, yes Hollywood did sort of distort history a little, but I agree considering what they had to work with, they did a pretty good job. Thanks for popping by.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Pamela, I have Celtic ancestry too, but mines Irish more than Scottish, but I still can't help but get a tingle down my spine whenever I read or write about William Wallace. Thanks for popping by.

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