Last time, Patrick of Dunbar offered Edward a lifeline – a chance to attack and maybe defeat his enemy on the field of battle before he was forced to run back to England for want of supplies.
There’s been a lot of confusion at this – why did Wallace offer battle in 1298 after retreating and following a policy of avoiding battle? Why did he suddenly change his mind? One convincing explanation for me was that Wallace had some idea that Edward was out of supplies and was about to be forced to retreat, and he saw the opportunity for night attacks as the English fled, to harass and demoralise his enemy. To turn retreat into rout. And so he had brought his army close – but he miscalculated. At this point then, Edward proved his mettle – and swiftly and agressively turned and attacked, so that Wallace was unable to withdraw in good order. It was in essence, a really bad piece of luck, in the words of Colonel Hathi, the fortunes of war and all that.
But anyway, maybe it would be OK- afterall, Wallace was 1-Nil up against the English. And the Scots had their killer formation the Schiltron.
The schiltron was an answer to the problem of heavy cavalry, an answer which we will see in the pages of military history for several hundred years in different iterations. The idea was that put a foot soldier against a horseman and I think we know who’s going to come off best 9 times out of 10, unless you are lucky enough to be the hero in a film, or maybe an Elf, in which case you’ll just duck, swing up behind the horseman and your know away you go. And in fact, put a shield wall of men with axes or swords and still we know where the clever money is. BUT present a horse with a hedge of long pointy things and which self-respecting horse is going to impale themselves on them for the good of their rider?
So the Schiltron built on the horse’s desire not to perforate itself unnecessarily. In the Schiltron, the first rank of the Scottish soldiers all knelt, holding a long spear, planted firmly in the ground to withstand the shock of any impacts that did happen, from the odd suicidal animal. The second rank also held 12 foot spears over the heads of the front rank. As long as they held together, cavalry would be presented with an impenetrable forest of sharp pointy things, and not be able to get through. At Falkirk, heavily outnumbered, the Scottish schiltrons were circular, which was an entirely defensive formation – but a square formation was just as effective and also had greater ability to attack.
In between the Schiltrons were Scottish archers, and behind were the flower of Scottish nobility on horses. It’s a neat arrangement; the schiltrons hold off the cavalry, the archers and cavalry were there to break up advancing formations of infantry. And if the archers were threatened, they could sneak back into the Schiltrons for defence until the trouble had gone away.
The Cavalry at Falkirk was commanded by John Comyn the Red. Their role to protect the spearmen from archers or footmen was critical of course. Wallace took his place amongst the common soldier, as you would expect, nay demand, to complete the story. But the record of his words imply a little less than certainty of success, it suggests an element of wobbling, a little worry
‘I have brought you to the ring now see if you can dance’
He was right to be wobbly as it happens. Because the Cavalry deserted him. Why, why would they do that? In the words of Shere Khan the tiger, he ran away. Actually Shere Khan didn’t say that did he, he said ‘how delightful’. Which doesn’t apply in this case unless you are Edward. Anyway, the desertion of Comyn and the flower of Scottish chivalry is one of those divisive chapters in the history of the war of independence. The most creditable story has an English cavalry attack by Anthony Bek on the Scottish Cavalry, and Comyn fleeing the field as they attacked – which might be considered feeble, but not necessarily desertion or treachery. Bek, by the way was the Bishop of Durham. Was he wearing his cassocks and all that as he attacked? I do not know. I have this image of a charging clergyman with his robes streaming out behind him a bit like Blackadder’s Bishop of Bath and Wells.
The less creditable story notes that the very few noblemen who died in the Schiltrons – Stewart and Macduff amongst them – were no friend to the Comyns, and John Comyn stands accused of selling out so that his political enemies would perish.
This is quite an accusation; it’s the accusation you only make when you have your lawyers handy. And I am going for the first story. The fault it seems to me really lies in bad luck, the bad luck of Wallace moving too early and being seen by Dunbar’s scouts, and therefore being caught and forced to fight. The Scottish cavalry were heavily outnumbered – the English were 2 ½, 3 times more numerous. What need do we have of complicated explanations like treachery, or accusations of cowardice which Comyn could refute on the battlefield many times? The Scottish cavalry left the field because they had no choice.
Anyway, the result was that Edward, a master tactician if nothing else, knew that Wallace was doomed. The schiltrons now had little defence to the English archers, only that which the Scottish archers could provide, and it turns out this was not enough. After suffer as much carnage as they could from the archers, the schiltrons broke, English cavalry charged and slaughter was the inevitable outcome.
Throughout Wallace’s story there is this sub story of the common people and the champion of the common man doing their duty bravely and honestly; and that patriotic behaviour being in contrast to the equivocal and self interested behaviour of the nobility. The theme starts with Wallace’s lowly background, moves on through the people’s army in Selkirk Forest; and culminates here at Falkirk, with the common man deserted by the perfidious and cowardly nobility in the form of the cavalry. Such a story feels deeply unhistorical. Because look, medieval realms weren’t like that the common man looked to their natural leaders in the nobility. And yet, and yet – it’s a story which cannot be simply dismissed out of hand. Maybe for lack of direct evidence, but also because there are little suggestions that it has substance. We know nothing of Wallace’s followers in Sekirk forest – but we do know many magnates were either languishing at Edward’s pleasure, or maintaining their loyalty to him, or were ambivalent about this new man pushing his way into the accepted society of the magnates. And so the assertion that the army of Selkirk Forest was populated by the common man has a little support.
Bruce’s own career is very open to the charge that it was for Bruce that he fought first and for Scotland second, that he was himself an example of noble self interest – and part of that debate is the answer to a question his son might have asked him – where were you at Falkirk Daddy?
Because the Scottish historical tradition blames Robert Bruce as well as John Comyn for the disaster at Falkirk. Bruce is said to have fought with Edward and the English – and in fact one story has him as part of Anthony Bek’s cavalry charge. The counter argument is that within a few weeks of Falkirk, Bruce was very much in revolt – to the point of destroying his castle at Ayr to prevent it falling into the hands of the English. So the argument goes that it’s too soon for Bruce to be changing sides after Falkirk, and counter intuitive that he would swap sides after such a victory for the English.
This is a fair point. However, consider that the last thing we know – which is Bruce swearing loyalty to Edward after the defeat at Irvine. And look what happened after Falkirk – Wallace resigned his Guardianship. We do not know which comes first – Bruce’s rebellion at Ayr or Wallace’s resignation. But if Bruce was not prepared to fight for Wallace, if Bruce was only prepared to oppose Edward with the right leadership in place – his own or another of the magnates at a pinch – them Falkirk is what delivers that situation.
For the record, in my view the whole story of noble perfidy and the honest common man is not quite credible enough. It would have taken remarkably cold malice for Comyn to purposefully desert Wallace; and Bruce had shown himself prepared to support Wallace before Falkirk, before his defeat at Irvine. Wallace and the common man thing sounds too much like an invented myth, and has no contemporary evidence – the first emerging with Fordun in the later 14th century.
Anyway, enough of debating the pros and cons of Bruce, this is supposed to be about Wallace. Fordun claims that Wallace resigned the Guardianship after the disaster at Falkirk of his own accord, but hints at some kind of Scottish treachery. He seems to have had a choice; he could have played hardball and stayed, given that at the time he was still the only credible commander – but to do so would have now split the Scottish resistance. So he resigned. Interestingly, it appears that Edward himself offered him clemency if he would submit – you will be relieved to hear that Wallace would have none of it. Again, he fulfils the role of straightforward, honest hero.
He now also moves back from the limelight into the shadow. For a year it seems to be that he went back to his life as a guerrilla in the forests of Selkirk, but then we get this rather remarkable report of a Scottish council meeting:
Sir David Graham demanded the lands and goods of Sir William Wallace because he was leaving the kingdom without the leave or approval of the Guardians. And Sir Malcolm, Sir William’s brother, answered that neither his lands nor his goods should be given away, for they were protected by the peace in which Wallace had left the kingdom, since he was leaving for the good of the kingdom
The result was an argument between Comyn and Bruce in Council that almost led to bloodshed. The upshot was that Wallace left Scotland to travel to France, where he stayed at least a year. Initially, Philip IV simply offered to hand him back to Edward – and Edward responded by saying no don’t worry, but could you pop him in jail please? Which is strangely relaxed. Something about Wallace appealed to the French king though, and Wallace seems to have then got under Philip’s skin. One of Wallace’s aims in travelling to France was to support the case the Scottish church was making to the Pope at the time, to refute Edward’s claims to overlordship of Scotland. And in 1301 we get this letter from Philip, asking for:
‘the Pope’s favour for his beloved William le Walois, knight, in the matter which he wishes to forward with His Holiness’
So, Philip has swung round to supporting Wallace and the Scots; evidence that Wallace could add the string of diplomacy to his bow. It could be that Wallace also travelled to Norway, to whip up support there, and we don’t know for sure exactly when he returned to Scotland, but in 1303 he would be active again in fighting the English war machine.
Anyway, I have skipped ahead, and however much I enjoy a bit of innocent skipping that’s a bad thing. We have not quite got to the end of the Wallace story, but for now leadership moved elsewhere within Scotland. Fresh from the catastrophic defeat at Falkirk, how would Bruce and Comyn respond?
It’s 1298, then, and by December at the latest, Wallace had slipped away. He was replaced as Guardian, possibly predictably by John ‘The Red’ Comyn and Robert Bruce. Although this feels like a return to magnate leadership, and largely it is, it is a different generation now that picked up the fight. And the first thing to note is that resistance did not crumble in the face of defeat – the fight for independence would continue. But it would be different to Baliol’s war, and different to the pitched battles of Stirling Bridge and Falkirk.
For the Scottish magnates that chose to resist Edward, rather than those who continued to fight on his side, their main concern was to resist a king who trampled on the rights of the community of their realm, threatened their individual status and lordship and placed them under alien law. But just as important remained the defence of each of their regional interests, lands and followers. In this lies a weakness that continued to dog the Scots – one of internal division; but also a strength, in the depth and durability of their regional connections, leadership and loyalty from their tenants. One commentator has noted that although the Scots had a central government, it was regional leadership by earls and magnates that was the core of their strength. This has a very significant impact on Edward’s attempt to take over the government of Scotland, to prove if he could that he brought good government. Edward could not simply remove the head of government and thereby seize control – he would have to reduce Scotland town by town, castle by castle.
This then pointed to the way Comyn and Bruce chose to take the fight forward. Recently defeated at Falkirk, with a massive English army in the field, what were they all to do? They chose to make the strength of their regional lordship their strategy. They would avoid the set piece battle as far as possible. That did not mean they were all going to watch Braveheart, slip into forest green and take to the forests; but it meant they would go back to their constituencies, motivate and activate their regional support and fight yard by yard.
That is not to say that the idea of a commonality of the realm would disappear – there would still be a Scottish Council of Guardians providing central leadership and decision making. It is important to note that in this you can see the beads of sweat on the respective foreheads of Comyn and Bruce as they forced themselves to try at least to sink their differences and work together for the common good; and for a while at least they succeeded. But you can see the pain, the cracks, and how hard it was for them. For Bruce, and for other magnates such as Atholl and Stewart, the Comyns were too dominant within the council, and Comyn dominance threatened their rights and position. For Comyn on the other had, Bruce was forever suspect – his loyalty to king John looked most equivocal, and Comyn suspected, that ultimately Bruce was out for Bruce’s interest first and foremost. And so we have deep-seated and personal antagonisms that haunted the Scottish cause. It even broke out into violence at times, such as the council meeting we heard about earlier, where the rights of Wallace’s lands were disputed. But for a while at least, the alliance held.
The dispute in 1299 led to the two Guardians being joined by a Guardian- William Lamberton the new Bishop of St Andrews. Lamberton was probably imposed as a senior Guardian to act as a final decision maker, which sounds sensible. But in a way it actually added to the antagonism; John Comyn continued to resent the imposition of Lamberton over his own family’s views and at one stage refused to work with him. But nonetheless, Lamberton was to prove a real asset. Because the Scottish Council now had more strings to their collective bow than simply military resistance, and in that Lamberton would be essential.
There were two other strings the Guardians would pursue. The first was to find friends to fight their enemy – and France was the obvious candidate. The Anglo French War continued to be a massive distraction and draw on Edward’s attention and resources; at very least that must continue and how much better if the French decided to open up a second front in Scotland and send military aid? Good idea. And the other possible source of aid was the Pope – maybe he could come to the diplomatic defence of his special daughter the Scottish church? Already in 1299, the tree of diplomacy had yielded fruit from the Pope, who had forced Edward to release of John Baliol from prison.
Through 1299 and into 1301, the Guardians enjoyed some success with their strategy. Stirling fell to the Scots in December 1298 despite the defeat at Falkirk. Edward’s forces were harassed in southern Scotland and fought to hold on to Selkirk Forest, and took the war to Galloway; in 1300 there was a famous siege there of the castle of Caerlaverock by Edward and all his host, battering the walls helplessly until after being repulsed multiple times, it’s holder Maxwell eventually forced to surrender – revealing that he’d held it against Edward’s might with just 60 men.
Despite the frustrations for Edward, throughout the war he still held the loyalty of a significant number of Scottish Magnates. The Macdonalds of the Western isles for example, and even the MacDougalls entered into negotiations. The Galloweigians retained their sense of independence from Scotland and gave their support to Edward, along with the Earls of Dunbar and Angus. The Scottish even at this stage remained deeply divided about where their loyalties lay. Now, the easy way of viewing the story of Edward and his actions from here is to view it as a war of physical conquest, of subjection. More accurate it to describe the actions of both sides, the Guardians and Edward, and a struggle to encourage or force the Scottish lords to choose sides. Edward had by now recognised that removing the local magnates as he had done in Wales was not feasible here – and so it must be partnership, even if it was to be a partnership created by wielding the sword.
In 1301 then, Edward assembled his third new army, and once more went on the offensive. And now at last after 4 years the relentless pressure began to tell. In September 1301, Bruce’s castle of Turnberry fell to Edward – and he came under pressure from his own men, many of who were reluctant anyway to fight Edward. In the winter of 1301, Clydesdale came over to Edward – the Campbells and Earl of Lennox submitting. And in early 1302, Bruce gave way to the pressure and discussed terms with Edward. Edward must have known how significant this was – and gave assurances about Bruce’s rights and lands. And Bruce duly submitted. It’s not just that the Guardians were deprived therefore of resources and an influential leader – now Bruce’s network of allegiances were swung onto Edward’s side. Here again then is something of a presentational problem for Bruce, a problem that’s been argued several ways. It’s been argued that this was just tactical, that Bruce was waiting for the right moment; equally it’s been argued once again that throughout the wars Bruce’s first priority was Bruce – here he had been threatened in his homeland and stood to lose his wealth and status – and he buckled and compromised as a result.
This was a massive blow, but Comyn was made of sterner stuff and fought on – and there were other successes to come. Edward’s Keeper of Selkirk Forest, Simon Fraser, swapped sides and joined Comyn in the north, and of course William Wallace had returned by 1303. But by the time he returned they were fighting alone. All the embassies to the papal Curia had succeeded in fighting effectively with Edward’s rather specious claims to English overlordship of all Britain – but in practical terms no more help was forthcoming after Baliol’s release. And in July 1302 the militia of Flanders put the finest chivalry of France to flight at the Battle of the Golden Spurs – and any idea of help from France died with France’s defeat – and worse, negotiations for peace started between England and France. The Scottish negotiators in France wrote back to the Guardians:
‘For God’s sake do not despair. If you have ever done brave deeds, do braver ones now’
And John Comyn did his best to comply with this stern if this useful if reasonably high level advice, and refused to be beaten. In February 1303s, Comyn and Simon Fraser executed a daring night march to surprise and defeat an English army at Roslin in Lothian, and struck south to capture Selkirk soon after. But it was to prove a false dawn. For now at last Edward could strike at the power base of the remaining Guardians – the Comyn lands north of the Mounth. Edward might be considered a poor strategist – consistently he’d pushed Scots too hard at the wrong points, and failed to construct a coherent strategy. But he was an impressive tactician. In June 1303 Edward simply ignored Stirling castle, and by September was in Buchan and Badenoch, leaving garrisons in Inverness, and making the Earl of Ross his lieutenant in the north. Comyn had now lost the oxygen that could keep his cause alive and by February 13304 he too had come to terms, His submission was followed by a rush of the remaining magnates – the Earls of Mentieth, Strathearn and Atholl. The final roll of the dice was at the last castle held against Edward, Stirling – and on June 24th 1304, Stirling fell too. The War of the Guardians was over.
So, seven years of resistance and warfare would appear to have achieved nothing. Well, in the words of Dell Boy, au contraire mon brave, au contraire. Edward was almost as exhausted as the Scots. He wanted a solution, and recognised that conquest and the wholesale replacement of Scottish officials by English and English direct rule was not it. The key issue was the maintenance of separate rights and customs of Scotland and the lands and authority of the Scottish magnates. Over the next 18 months, Edward tried reasonably hard to consult and emole the Scots, or at least what passed for emollience from Edward. He consulted with them, which was something, and in September 1305 his Ordinance for the Good order of Scotland made quite a few concessions. Although there would still be an English lieutenant of Scotland and English administrators, the justiciars would be Scottish, and sheriffdoms would be shared by English and Scots. He had been specifically asked to confirm the laws of Alexander III; he didn’t quite do this which is interesting, He confirmed the laws of David I, though withheld the right to make amendments; but significantly refused to confirm Gaelic laws and customs. Law was Edward’s thing – there was only so far he’d go. The vast majority of Magnates though, were to retain their lands and authority; though some were exiled. All of these, however, were offered forgiveness if they would deliver the most significant man for whom Edward would not consider forgiveness – William Wallace.
Once again the historiography of Edward’s Ordinances for Scotland is divided. For some it was a genuine, pragmatic and statesman like attempt for Edward to come to agreement. But for others, and I cannot help but agree, it was doomed to fail
– because at its heart was still an assault on the sovereignty of Scotland, and the rights of the community of the realm. For all their factionalism, none of the Scottish magnates would easily give up the concept of the separate laws and customs which by the time of Alexander III were firmly established. For all their internal squabbles, many would only ever accept a king that ruled England as well as Scotland without a clear commitment to separation. And consider the church; there was no commitment in the Ordinance to a separate church. The Scottish church had fought long and hard for their precious status as the Pope’s special daughter and independence from York – it was once more at threat. Nonetheless it’s worth making the point again. It’s no use looking at the Scottish wars of Independence from modern nationalistic lines. If Edward had been prepared to go the whole hog and rule Scotland as a separate kingdom, Edward could have had his dual crown in 1305.
There is an unfinished thread to the story of course – the Story of Wallace. Since he returned in 1303, Edward had specifically pursued Wallace, and his new associate Simon Fraser. There are records of payments made for attempts to ambush the pair, there are payments of horses made for those that had paid and failed. Because Wallace was back to what he loved best, and had lost none of his flair. He continued to cause pain to the English – for example in Stirlingshire, inflicting losses on a superior force under Aymer de Valence before vanishing once more. They seek him here they seek him there as it were, Wallace was living up to his idiom. Marvin at this moment might have remarked to Wallace ‘I could calculate your chances of success but you won’t like it’ but you suspect that Wallace would not have cared – he was doing his thing. Edward was clear:
it is not at all our pleasure that you hold out any word of peace to him, or to any other of his company, unless they place themselves absolutely and in all things at our will without any reservation whatsoever
There would be no reconciliation with the Wallace – he was one step beyond the Pale. Sometimes the English came close; in March 1304, a special raid was organised to capture him – and part of that raid, incidentally, was one Robert Bruce. The raid was based on good information – Wallace and Fraser were discovered, and they and their men were beaten, at a place called Happrew. But the main men, Wallace and Fraser both, they escaped to fight another day.
John de Mentieth was a younger son of Walter Stewart, and had been associated with Robert Bruce since the start of the Great Cause, along with his father. His career is reasonably typical of many of the nobility; he’d fought against Edward alongside Baliol, and submitted after Dunbar in 1296, and joined Edward on campaign in France. He’d risen in rebellion again by 1301 certainly when he was ravaging the lands of Edwards supporters, but along with many he submitted by 1303 and in March 1304 Edward appointed him Sheriff of Dumbarton.
It was in this capacity that he was acting when, according to one tradition, he was secretly approached by a man called Jack Short. Jack was Wallace’s close servant, but Short apparently harboured a resentment against his lord and master, who had killed his brother. Jack’s message was that he could deliver Wallace to Mentieth, he could reveal his whereabouts. I do not know how much of a struggle this was for Mentieth – on the one hand it was clearly his sworn duty to act on this information and capture Wallace; on the other hand, he had himself fought Edward hard, and yet he was about to deliver the most successful of all the rebels into the hands of his enemy, to certain death. Did he dither, did he agonise? We do not know.
But we know broadly what happened – Mentieth sent his men to capture Wallace, and on 3rd August 1305 he was taken. Mentieth would be well rewarded by Edward and made earl of Lennox; equally as Menthieth galloped around with his Minstrels be might have heard not brave sir John but ‘false Mentieth’ for such was the nickname he acquired. Well you know, you pays your money and all that. Edward was very, very pleased, thoroughly chuffed in fact, giving 40 marks for Short and 60 marks for the men who had captured him which is handsome, ladies and gentlemen, handsome, you could buy a lot more than a hill of beans for that in those days.
So, Wallace. Wallace was taken to Westminster, where Edward refused to see him – Wallace was a low born rebel, what would Edward have to discuss with him? On 22nd August, Wallace was taken to Westminster Hall for judgement. This was high drama – Wallace was taken in procession through the streets and the jeering crowds, a procession which included Geoffrey, Wallace’s brother, and then English justices, aldermen and sheriffs. Inside Westminster Hall a Scaffold had been erected on which Wallace was made to stand. Wallace was given no trial. I don’t mean that in an angry outraged ‘this was judicial murder’ sense – as far as English law was concerned, Wallace was a known traitor, since in 1305 he had been an outlawed thief. No trial was required in such circumstances. An indictment was read out, and Wallace essentially said, yup, fair enough, it’s a fair cop, bang to rights governor – except for one critical point.
I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject
You cannot convict me of treason, for I never swore allegiance to Edward is his point. It was a proud, and good point – as we have said, there is no Wallace on the Ragman’s Roll. Fair point. So on the same day Judgement was given, and Wallace was released with a public apology, a fresh set of clothes and a voucher for a free wash and blow dry.
Sadly not. Wallace was of course convicted, and allowed no response. He then went through the full and hideous process of a medieval execution for treason; He was hauled on a hurdle to the gallows at Smithfield, through the howling and I would guess generally unsympathetic crowd. He was hanged, cut down before dead and his heart and bowels taken out and burnt, his body quartered. His head was cut off and placed on London Bridge, his quarters displayed at Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling, and Perth. Down to hideous ruin and combustion, Who durst defy the omnipotent to arms. Whether or not he yelled Freedom and all that, is not recorded, ouch would have been more appropriate in my view.
So died a national hero. As with many national heroes, it’s really impossible to build a proper 3 dimensional picture of the man; we can say that he was undeniably physically and morally brave, loyal in his firm adherence to King John Baliol to whom his allegiance never wavered. He was no pushover, he was a tough man prepared to do what was required – in the burning of Wishart’s lands for example, but also in standing down after Falkirk. Maybe that was forced on him, but he was intelligent enough to see the damage that would have resulted to the cause if he stayed. He showed diplomatic skill in France not just military skill, and seems to have been able to charm or persuade the French king – he was not a simple soldier and rebel. More than that, it’s difficult to say.