11 September 1297

Stirling Bridge, Stirlingshire

Scots under William Wallace vs. English led by the Earl of Surrey

The roots of the conflict lie many years before. King Alexander of Scotland died mysteriously in 1286, leaving the child Margaret of Norway as his heir. Edward I extracted a promise of marriage between Margaret and his own son, but when Margaret died on her way back to Scotland there was no obvious heir.

The Scots asked Edward to mediate between the various claimants to the throne. Edward was scrupulously fair in his arbitration, but he extracted oaths of fealty from all the claimants. The two men with the best claims were John Balliol and Robert Bruce. Edward chose Balliol, and immediately began to show that he intended to manipulate his choice at every opportunity.

Balliol rebelled, and allied with France. Furious, Edward marched north, took Balliol prisoner, and occupied Scotland. William Wallace raised the Scots in revolt again, gaining most of his support from those who had originally backed Robert Bruce.

Wallace was a fearless warrior and seemed to be motivated more by patriotism than by any thought of personal gain.

The Earl of Surrey marched north from Berwick and found Wallace just outside Stirling. Surrey sent heralds to try to convince Wallace to disband his men, but the Scot was having none of that argument.

Surrey behaved with unpardonable lack of respect for his opponents - he sent away a part of his troops when the Treasurer complained of the expense, and then held up his own attack plan by oversleeping.

Rather than send his men two miles upstream to a broad ford across the River Forth, Surrey elected to attack across Stirling Bridge, which was so narrow as to permit only two men to advance at one time.

When a good number of the English knights had crossed, Wallace let loose his men, who gleefully cut a swath through the unprepared English. Their attack cut Surrey's army in two, and reinforcements from the far bank could only be sent in twos across the bridge.

Most of the men who had crossed were killed by the Scots, who must have been shaking their heads at the incredible folly of the English leaders. The English baggage train was captured, with a host of valuable supplies. Surrey himself fled south to Berwick.

After the Battle of Stirling Bridge, William Wallace was knighted and put in sole command of the Scottish troops. The golden glow of success was not destined to shine long, however. Edward I was a leader not likely to make the same mistakes as the Earl of Surrey, and he led a sizeable army north to deal with Wallace himself. They met at the Battle of Falkirk just 10 months later.

More British Battles

Medieval knight image