The man who lost at Stirling Bridge

The Battle of Stirling Bridge, fought on September 11, 1297, is remembered as one Scotland’s greatest military victories and the high point of the career of William Wallace. A new article now explores the other side of the battle, seeking to understand how the English lost that day.

“John de Warenne, Guardian of Scotland, and the Battle of Stirling Bridge,” by Andrew M. Spencer, appears in England and Scotland at War, c. 1296-c. 1513, edited by Andy King and David Simpkin. The article focuses on Warenne, the Earl of Surrey and leader of the English forces at the battle, who has been lampooned by historians as a bumbling and unlikeable commander. Spencer finds that while Warenne may have been an unpleasant character, he was also loyal to King Edward I and had a strong military career going back forty years. Spencer writes that one needs to dig deeper to “piece together the reasons why this experienced soldier suffered the first significant defeat by an English army against the Scots for well over a century.”

One of the main reasons for the English defeat may have been that they were too contemptuous of the Scots and took them lightly. The 1296 campaign, which saw the English easily capture castles and rout armies, had probably confirmed to Edward and his men that the Scottish enemy was not a threat. The English king was happy to  complete his conquest and place his trusted follower in charge of the country. He even reportedly told Warenne “he does good business, who rids himself of shit.”

Edward soon turned his attention to the continent and continuing his wars with the King of France. He made excessive demands of men and money from his newly conquered subjects, which would provoke rebellion within a year. As Spencer notes, “Edward I’s single-mindedness, one of his greatest strengths, was making the lives 0f his servants north of the border very difficult.”

As Scotland, under the leadership of William Wallace and Andrew Moray, fell into rebellion, John de Warenne began preparations to lead armies back north. Unfortunately for the English commander, he “was forced to conduct his whole campaign with one hand tied behind his back by his king,” according to Spencer, as Edward reassigned forces destined for Scotland to assist with his campaign in Flanders. Warenne eventually had to march into Scotland with a force that “was probably the worst in Edward I’s entire reign.”

Even with these troubles, the English still had reason to be confident that they could rout the Scots again. Hugh de Cressingham, who had remained in Scotland, and other English nobles had quickly managed to retake control over much of the country, even gaining the capitulation of Robert Bruce. Cressingham wanted to attack Wallace’s army himself, but it was decided to wait for Warenne to arrive from England.

Spencer then follows events up to the day of the battle, which for the English “would be farcical were it not so tragic.” He believes that the 66-year-old Warenne was likely unwell and was late to arrive to the battlefield. The English had twice marched over the bridge at Stirling, only to march back. After having a council of war, Warenne again ordered his troops to cross the bridge for a third time, in order to fight against Wallace and Moray. Spencer writes what happened next.

The vanguard of the English army, mostly foot-soldiers, crossed the river but the Scots attacked them, cutting off the bridgehead and trapping them in the loop of the river. One group of English horsemen, headed by Sir Marmaduke Thweng, managed to cut their way free and cross back to the English side, but Cressingham and most of the foot-soldiers were killed. The main English force never engaged and could only watch helplessly as their comrades were massacred. Warenne ordered the bridge to be destroyed and reinforced Stirling Castle before heading straight for Berwick at top speed and then on to London to report the disaster and urge reinforcements.

Spencer concludes that Warenne made grave mistakes, such as not taking the Scottish threat seriously and in being slow to respond to the situation. However, he lays more blame on Edward I for both provoking the rebellion with his harsh demands and for hamstringing the Earl of Surrey’s attempt to raise forces to put down the rebellion.

The article is published in England and Scotland at War, c.1296-c.1513, which came out late last year from Brill. It contains 15 articles that examine the leadership, men and campaigns from both sides of the long-standing conflict. Click here to visit the Brill website for more details.

Click here to read more about William Wallace

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