On 11 September 1297, an outnumbered Scottish army defeated the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. The most spectacular victory of William Wallace, the Scottish leader depicted in Braveheart (1995), it proved to the embattled Scots that they could drive back the invaders from the south. Though there were setbacks ahead, Stirling Bridge was a key moment in ensuring Scottish independence.
In the face of overwhelming odds, how did William Wallace win at Stirling Bridge?
1. Inspiring Leadership
The Anglo-Scottish war was not a straightforward conflict between two nations. There were several competitors for the Scottish throne, and many Scottish nobles switched sides during the course of the war. But Wallace was a diehard supporter of John Balliol, the Scottish king. Wallace’s steadfast character helped him to inspire other Scots, gathering an army several thousand strong despite his relatively minor position in the Scottish nobility. Leading by example, he launched a campaign of guerrilla warfare against the invaders from 1296 to 1297, binding his men to him.
2. Andrew Moray
Wallace was not the only Scottish commander at Stirling Bridge. Earlier in the year, he had combined forces with Andrew Moray, another leader of the northern Scottish rebels. Moray was a fellow Balliol loyalist, and had escaped from English captivity following the Battle of Dunbar in 1296. Though Wallace had more men serving under him, Moray was a more senior noble, and his presence brought the army credibility and political support. Fatally wounded during the Battle of Stirling Bridge, Moray is not as well remembered as Wallace, but he contributed as much to the Scottish victory.
Wallace and Moray’s army had one big strategic advantage – it was more manoeuvrable. Fighting on their home ground, and without the extensive supply train the invading army needed, they campaigned on their own terms, forcing the English to face them in a place of their choosing. Their experience as hit and run guerrilla fighters equipped them perfectly for such a campaign.
4. Negotiations at Irvine
Wallace and Moray were not the only Scottish nobles rebelling against the English in 1297. In fact, they were among the least powerful of the Scots’ leaders. Another revolt further south fizzled out, its leaders negotiating a peace rather than fight the English. But while they failed to support Wallace and Moray’s revolt, they drew out negotiations long enough to buy the northern rebels more time.
5. A Calculated Gamble
With their larger population, larger treasury and more experienced troops, the English were always likely to win in a pitched battle. Up until Stirling Bridge, Wallace and Moray avoided this, relying upon small raids by mobile forces. Their troops were kept scattered across the countryside, so that the English could not corner them. Their hope was to damage English morale and supplies, forcing a a withdrawal. But by September 1297 a large English army was marching north to crush the Scottish government. Wallace and Moray gambled on their ability to win if they could just find a battle site that was to their advantage.