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The Scottish Wars of Independence

Part I

Ewan J. Innes, MA(Hons Scot. Hist.) FSA Scot


Synopsis:  This essay summarizes the history of the Scottish Wars of Independence up to 1329.

Please see my copyright policy if you wish to cite any part of this essay.

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The rising of Wallace in 1297, must be placed into some context. Wallace's standing and ability to operate required that he have support or at least no hostility from Sir James Stewart his lord. Moreover, as the son of a knight and possibly a minor landholder, he would have the ability to bring together some trained men for his struggle.

It is commonly assumed that Wallace led a band of outlaws and common men. While there would undoubtedly have been many like this in his band, some of his exploits required trained men with horses. Moreover, it should be stated that Wallace was not alone in this struggle. In the north a young knight Sir Andrew Moray, was engaged in a widespread and highly effective campaign to rid the English from the north of Scotland. A campaign Wallace certainly was not involved in.

After having cleared Scotland of the English, Wallace and Moray brought their armies together to face the next threat. A huge English army was being led north by the Earl of Surrey and the Edward's treasurer in Scotland Hugh Cressingham. The two armies met at Stirling Bridge where the English were routed. They were routed by an army predominantly of foot soldiers, a fact that shocked many both in Scotland and England as well as further afield.

After this victory, Wallace and a severely wounded Moray were appointed Guardians of Scotland and promptly invaded England over the winter of 1297/8 causing widespread havoc. At some point around this time, Wallace was knighted.

The only source for this is a reliable English one. The source states simply that one of the great nobles had knighted him. At the time, there were only three present in Scotland, the earls of Strathearn, Lennox and Carrick. It is from this evidence that the story has grown that it was the earl of Carrick, Robert Bruce who carried out the ceremony. However it is equally possible that Lennox or even Strathearn did it instead.

A furious Edward marched north the next year, again with a huge army. Wallace (Moray died of wounds inflicted at Stirling Bridge) met him at Falkirk having burned most of Southern Scotland to try and starve Edward out. The Scots were hugely outnumbered but Wallace had no option but to fight it out. Despite initial success in beating off the English knights, Wallace had no way to fight back against the thousands of Welsh and English archers who poured arrows into the static Scots. After a long period of this, the English knights charged again and the Scots were wiped out. Wallace escaped the field, resigned the guardianship and went to France to the French court.

In the meantime, the Scots had elected new guardians. Robert Bruce earl of Carrick (grandson of the Robert Bruce who had claimed the throne) and John Comyn lord of Badenoch and cousin of John Balliol. The two men could not work together often coming close to blows during meetings. Bruce was planning to marry Elizabeth de Burgh, a marriage which was being held up by Edward's displeasure at him. So, in 1302 Bruce resigned the guardianship, swore fealty to Edward (for the umpteenth time) and married.

One of the most decisive battles in the wars of independence took place in 1302. The battle took place not in Scotland but in Flanders. At Courtrai, the flower of the French army was destroyed utterly by an army of Flemish foot soldiers armed with pikes who withstood the French knights charges before butchering them. This battle is decisive because up to that point the Scots had been if not winning certainly holding their own against Edward. Edward was fighting a war on two fronts, and was finding it increasingly difficult to do so. There were several campaigns in Scotland which achieved nothing except the starvation of the invading army. However with the French king now without an army, and suing for peace with Edward, the Scots would be faced with only one option. Stand or surrender. To their credit, they held out until 1305, but when the crunch came, they packed it in.

Edward still wanted Wallace captured and had offered a fairly large reward for this. It was not until 1305 however that anyone took the bait. The Scot who did so was Sir John Stewart of Menteith. He sent one of his men as part of Wallaces band and had him lead Wallace to a spot where he could be apprehended. Wallace was then taken south with all speed where he was tried, convicted of High Treason (amongst other things), then hung drawn quartered and variously mutilated.

It is often stated that this act of barbarism on Edward's part was unforgivable and illegal. While this may be so, it should be remembered that while the high treason indictment was questionable to say the least (Wallace had never sworn fealty to Edward, so couldn't be charged with breaking that fealty), Wallace was also subject to a host of other charges,some true others, such as murdering schoolboys unlikely. The huge propaganda machine which was used in England to justify the Scottish wars and to get support to continue them left little room for leniency for a man who had soundly defeated a conventional army by unconventional means.

With Wallace now a decoration for London Bridge, Edward turned his hand to the governance of his new lands. Various acts were passed for the effective government of Scotland. None of them had any effect for, within six months of Wallaces execution, there was rebellion again in Scotland.

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