Battle of Falkirk (1298)


Battle of Falkirk (1298)

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Falkirk
partof=the First War of Scottish Independence


caption=
date=July 22, 1298
place=Falkirk, Scotland
result=English victory
combatant1=

combatant2=

commander2=William Wallace
commander1=Edward I of England
strength2=6,000:
1,000 cavalry
5,000 infantry
strength1=28,700:
3,000 cavalry
14,800 English infantry
10,900 Welsh infantry
casualties2=2,000 killed
2,000 deserted
casualties1=2,000 killed or wounded
The Battle of Falkirk, ("Blàr na h-Eaglaise Brice" in Gaelic) which took place on 22 July 1298, was a major engagement in the First War of Scottish Independence. An English army commanded by King Edward I of England defeated the Scots under William Wallace. Despite his success King Edward was unable to complete the subjugation of Scotland because his army had been weakened by the campaign.

Prelude

King Edward I was campaigning against the French in Flanders when he learned of the defeat of his northern army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. After concluding a truce with Philip the Fair, he returned to England in March 1298 and immediately began organising an army for his second invasion of Scotland. As a preliminary step he moved the centre of government to York, where it was to remain for the next six years. A council-of-war was held in the city in April to finalise the details of the invasion. The Scots magnates were all summoned to attend, and when none appeared they were all declared to be traitors. Edward then ordered his army to assemble at Roxburgh on 25 June. The force he gathered was impressive: over 2,000 horses and 12,000 infantry, including many Welshmen armed with the longbow.

In early July the march northwards began. Things did not go well. William Wallace, now Guardian of Scotland, had ordered a scorched earth policy, denying the invaders fresh supplies. The Scots gave ground, drawing the English ever deeper into barren and hostile territory. Edward's own supply fleet was delayed by bad weather, and when the army reached central Scotland it was close to starvation. The Welsh infantry in particular were badly demoralised. While the army was encamped at Temple Liston, near Edinburgh, they erupted in a drunken riot that was broken up by the English cavalry, who killed 80 Welshmen. Edward faced the prospect of the kind of ignominious retreat that was to become a regular feature of his son's campaigns in the succeeding reign. As he was on the point of falling back on Edinburgh he received intelligence that Wallace had taken up position in the wood of Callendar near Falkirk, only thirteen miles away, ready to pursue the retreating English. Edward was delighted: "As God lives... they need not pursue me, for I will meet them this day".

Battle

The Scots army, again made up chiefly of spearmen as at Stirling, was arranged in four great armoured 'hedgehogs' known as schiltrons. The long spears pointed outwards at various heights gave these formations a formidable and impenetrable appearance. The gaps between the schiltrons were filled with archers, armed with longbows, and to the rear there was a small troop of men-at-arms, provided by the Comyns and other magnates.

On Tuesday, July 22, the English cavalry, divided into four battalions, finally caught sight of their elusive enemy. The left was commanded by the Earls of Norfolk, Hereford and Lincoln. The right was under the command of Anthony Bek, Bishop of Durham, while the King commanded the centre, still a little distance to the rear of the vanguard. Once in sight of the enemy, Norfolk and his colleagues began an immediate attack, but on encountering a small marsh to the front of the Scots position, made a long detour to the west before being able to make contact with the right of Wallace's army. Bek tried to hold back his own battalion to give the King time to get into position, but he was overruled by his impatient knights anxious to join their comrades on the left in an immediate attack. In a disorganised pell-mell the cavalry finally closed on the Scots, on the right and left. The ground thundered as the schiltrons braced themselves for the impact. The sight of the lowered lances and the large war-horses was too much for the forty or so Scottish cavalry, which turned and fled from the field. The Scots bowmen commanded by Sir John Stewart, the younger brother of the High Stewart, stood their ground and were quickly destroyed. But the schiltrons held firm, absorbing the shock of the impact. The knights made no impression on the dense forest of long spears and were soon threatened with impalement. A large number of riders were killed under their horses. King Edward arrived in time to witness the discomfiture of his cavalry and quickly restored discipline. The knights were ordered to withdraw and Edward prepared to employ the tactics that the Earl of Warwick had used to defeat the Welsh spearmen at the Battle of Maes Madog in 1295.

Bloody fighting now took place between the English spearmen and the Scottish infantry, with the Scots getting the better of it. Despite their success, the schiltrons were isolated and locked into a static defensive position. Edward's archers were brought into place and went to work with their deadly longbows. Their hail of arrows was supplemented by crossbow and slingshot. The schiltrons were an easy target, they had no defence and nowhere to hide. Unable to retreat or attack, the battle was lost for the Scots almost as soon as the first arrows began to fall. The cavalry waited, this time observing the King's command, until the Scots ranks were thin enough to allow them to enter and finish the job. A great many Scots were killed, including Macduff, son of the Earl of Fife. The survivors, Wallace included, escaped as best they could, mostly into the nearby forest of Torwood where their pursuers could not safely follow. It was said that, of Wallace's army of about 6,000, a third were killed, a third deserted and Wallace was left only with the remainder. Historian Michael Prestwich has pointed out that "the English payroll suggests casualties among the English infantry approaching 2,000". This was testimony to how fiercely the schiltrons had fought until their final rout.

Falkirk was the first great victory of the longbow.

Aftermath

For England, Falkirk was a victory that contained the seeds of future defeat. Wallace had lost some of his most loyal supporters, including Sir John Stewart, and second-in-command Sir John de Graham. The arrogance and indiscipline of the knights had been potentially disastrous. Warfare was becoming a professional business, and the day of the wild charge that carried all before it was over. Bravery was no substitute for organisation and discipline. Above all, the ability to exercise effective command in battle was decisive. Edward I succeeded at Falkirk, but Edward II, faced with similar circumstances, was to fail and disastrously so, at Bannockburn.

Falkirk was a considerably less decisive battle than Dunbar. Although Wallace's credibility had been damaged, the Kingdom was not conquered, thanks in large measure to his scorched earth tactics. King Edward's army, weakened by hunger and disease, was in no position to carry on with a prolonged campaign. He ordered a retreat to Carlisle, where he hoped to hold the army together for a fresh campaign, but many deserted, including a large part of Bek's contingent from Durham. The King tried to prevent further desertions by holding out the prospect of gaining Scots lands to those who remained, which only led to even more disputes. King Edward had no option but to dismiss the greater part of his army, although he himself remained on the border until the end of the year, after which he returned to the south, convinced that the disloyalty of his Barons had robbed him of the fruits of Falkirk.

Wallace's failure at Falkirk ended what might be called the "popular" phase of the national revolution, with leadership soon to pass into more traditional aristocratic hands. The great hero, who had no independent power base in Scotland, resigned as Guardian and travelled abroad to elicit support from the King of France and possibly the Pope. He became a wanted man, flitting in and out of history over the next seven years, until his capture and execution in 1305.

References

* Bain, J., "The Edwards in Scotland, 1296-1377", 1961.
* Barrow, G. W. S." Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland", 1976
* Barron, E. M. "The Scottish War of Independence", 1934.
* Morris, J. E. "The Welsh Wars of Edward I", 1994.
* Nicholson, R. "Scotland-the Later Middle Ages", 1974.
* Oman, C., "The Art of War in the Middle Ages", 1898.
* Prestwich, M., "Edward I", 1988.


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