Monday, December 1, 2014

Monday Exposure: Stirling Bridge

The battle of Stirling Bridge, in 1297, demonstrated for the first time in European history that a force of common infantrymen could defeat a mounted cavalry force of armored knights.

The Scots had a small army, perhaps around 2,000 infantry and a few hundred cavalry. The English, by contrast, brought 8,000 to 10,000 battle-hardened infantry and several thousand cavalry. It should have been a mismatch. The English were so sure of victory they delayed crossing the bridge for several days, waiting to see if the Scots would simply surrender without a fight.

Old Stirling Bridge in Scotland
The old Stirling Bridge, built in the late 1400s or early 1500s.
Led by Andrew de Moray and fanatical William Wallace — who was bearded and had no fanciful blue facepaint like the Mel Gibson portrayal — the Scots employed an ingenious tactical plan. To cross the River Forth, the English needed to cross Stirling Bridge, which at the time was wooden and so narrow that only two horsemen could cross abreast. It would take hours for the English to get their forces across.

The Scots waited patiently until half of the English forces squeezed over the bridge. Then, at a run, they descended from their craig. One flank of Scottish infantry pressed along the banks of the river until it reached the bridge, cutting off the advancing English forces and isolating those English soldiers already across. Since the bridge was so narrow, a relatively small force could hold off attackers, who could attack only two at a time due to the width of the bridge. The English forces panicked, with soldiers seeking to both advance and retreat. Men and horses were forced over the sides of the bridge to drown in the river below.

Stirling Bridge aerial view
Aerial view of the Stirling battlefield.
Meanwhile, the knightly cavalry of the English forces found themselves unable to maneuver. The bridge had emptied them into a naturally-formed noose, with the river hemming them in on three sides, while on the fourth the Scottish infantry tightened the pressure as it inexorably advanced. Moreover, the land was boggy and their horses struggled to gain footing. They could neither advance nor retreat. And most especially, the cavalry could not perform as cavalry, i.e., mount a charge into the ranks of the infantry. The Scots' tactics had rendered the cavalry wholly ineffective. Instead, the knights were stymied to a standstill, then isolated, and eventually hacked to pieces.

Many of the knights fled into the river. While some made it safely across to their English brethren, others were mired into the mud. Even if they knew how, the knights could not swim under the burden of their heavy armor. Nor could their horses swim, weighed down not only by the armored knight atop them, but also by their own heavy barding. Those knights who made it across generally did so by discarding their armor and swimming. The others were easy pickings.

The English infantry who had crossed the bridge were slaughtered, with no chance of escape. Fully half of the total English forces perished in the battle. Abandoning their comrades to their fate, the retreating English army burned the bridge as they fled, seeking to deter the Scots from following.

At the time, the battle seemed decisive. With de Moray either perishing during the battle or soon afterwards from injuries, Wallace emerged as the Scottish resistance leader. A few months after the battle, Wallace led significant raids into northern England, burning hundreds of towns and villages. By the spring of 1298, he was named Guardian of Scotland. By the summer of 1298, however, Wallace led the Scots to defeat in the Battle of Falkirk. He soon thereafter either resigned or was stripped of his title, and he spent several years in quasi-exile before being captured and killed by the English.

Many visitors to Stirling Bridge gaze upon the stone structure and believe it to be the bridge involved in the battle. But the stone bridge now in place, called the "old Stirling Bridge," was built in the late 1400s or early 1500s. A "new Stirling Bridge," built in the early 1830s, is nearing two hundred years of age. Every so often, a confused visitor gazes on the old stone structure thinking it's the eponymous bridge, but the battle took place a couple hundred yards upstream. No signs of the 13th century battle remain.

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