The Earl of Surrey had won a victory over the aristocracy of Scotland at the Battle of Dunbar. However, by August 1297 Moray and Wallace controlled almost all of Scotland north of the Forth, except for Dundee. Surrey marched north with an army from Berwick to relieve Dundee. The town of Stirling was the key entry point to the north of Scotland.
The 6th Earl of Surrey, John de Warenne, arrived with his supporters at the narrow, wooden bridge over the River Forth near Stirling Castle and determined that he would be at a tactical disadvantage if he attempted to take his main force across there. So he delayed crossing for several days to allow for negotiations, and to reconnoitre the area. On 10 September, Warenne gave orders to cross the river the next day. At dawn the English and Welsh infantry started to cross only to be recalled because Warenne had overslept.
The Scots arrived first and camped on Abbey Craig, which dominated the soft flat ground north of the river. The English force of English, Welsh, and Scots knights, bowmen, and foot soldiers camped south of the river. Sir Richard Lundie, a Scots knight who joined the English after the Capitulation of Irvine, offered to outflank the enemy by leading a cavalry force over a ford two miles upstream, where sixty horsemen could cross at the same time. Hugh de Cressingham, King Edward’s treasurer in Scotland, persuaded the Earl to reject this advice and order a direct attack across the bridge.
The small bridge was broad enough to let only two horsemen cross abreast, but offered the safest river crossing, as the Forth widened to the east and the marshland of Flanders Moss lay to the west. The Scots waited as the English knights and infantry began to make their slow progress across the bridge on the morning of 11 September. It would have taken several hours for the entire English army to cross.
Wallace and Moray waited, according to the Chronicle of Hemingburgh, until “as many of the enemy had come over as they believed they could overcome”. When a substantial number of the troops had crossed, the attack was ordered. The Scots spearmen came down from the high ground in rapid advance and fended off a charge by the English heavy cavalry and then counterattacked the English infantry. They gained control of the east side of the bridge, and cut off the chance of English reinforcements to cross. Caught on the low ground in the loop of the river with no chance of relief or of retreat, most of the outnumbered English on the east side were probably killed. A few hundred may have escaped by swimming across the river. Marmaduke Thweng managed to fight his way back across the bridge and he thus became the only knight of all those on the far side of the river to survive the battle.
Surrey, who was left with a small contingent of archers, had stayed south of the river and was still in a strong position. The bulk of his army remained intact and he could have held the line of the Forth, denying the Scots a passage to the south, but his confidence was gone. After the escape of Sir Marmaduke Thweng, Surrey ordered the bridge to be destroyed, retreated towards Berwick, leaving the garrison at Stirling Castle isolated and abandoning the Lowlands to the rebels. James Stewart, the High Steward of Scotland, and Malcolm, Earl of Lennox, whose forces had been part of Surrey’s army, observing the carnage to the north of the bridge, withdrew. Then the English supply train was attacked at The Pows, a wooded marshy area, by James Stewart and the other Scots lords, killing many of the fleeing soldiers.
This Stirling Bridge is believed to have been about 180 yards upstream from the 15th century stone bridge that crosses the river today. Four stone piers have been found underwater just north and at an angle to the extant 15th-century bridge, along with man-made stonework on one bank in line with the piers. The site of the fighting was along either side of an earthen causeway leading from the Abbey Craig, atop which the Wallace Monument is now, to the north end of the bridge.
The Battle of Stirling Bridge was a shattering defeat for the English: it showed that under certain circumstances infantry could be superior to cavalry. It was some time, though, before this lesson was fully absorbed.
Contemporary English chronicler Walter of Guisborough recorded the English losses in the battle as 100 cavalry and 5,000 infantry killed. Scottish casualties in the battle are unrecorded, with the exception of Andrew Moray. He appears to have been injured in the battle and died of his injuries around November.
De Cressingham’s body was reportedly subsequently flayed and the skin cut into small pieces for souvenirs of the victory. The Lanercost Chronicle records that Wallace had “a broad strip [of Cressingham’s skin]…taken from the head to the heel, to make therewith a baldrick for his sword”.
Wallace went on to lead a destructive raid into northern England which did little to advance the Scots objectives, however the raids frightened the English army and stalled their advance. By March 1298 he had emerged as Guardian of Scotland. His glory was brief, for King Edward was coming north from Flanders. The two men finally met on the field of Falkirk in the summer of 1298, where Wallace was defeated.