William Wallace is perhaps one of Scotland's most famous historical figures, but the popular conception of him owes more to Hollywood screenwriters than actual historiography. Adaptations such as 1995's Braveheart (itself based on a poem written over a century after Wallace's death) have popularized the figure, but in many cases they have glossed over or even omitted the most noteworthy elements of Wallace's military career by focusing on his role as a charismatic leader, rather than his abilities as a military strategist.
By examining what information is available about Wallace's military exploits, and particularly the Battle of Stirling Bridge, it will be possible to see how Wallace's successes in the first War of Scottish Independence were the combined result of his knowledge of Scottish terrain and the deployment of unconventional tactics and strategies that played off of the British military's own confidence and sense of superiority.
Before discussing the Battle of Stirling Bridge in greater detail, it will be useful to provide some context to the Scottish Wars of Independence in general and the character of William Wallace in particular. Wallace was born to a noble Scottish family, but beyond this very little is known about his family; his father may have been named Alan, based on a letter seal stating as much, evidence suggests that he had two brothers, Malcolm and John (although some sources indicate that Wallace's father's name was actually Malcolm).
His parentage represents more than simple trivia, because it gives some clue to Wallace's perspective on the issue of Scottish independence. In particular, at a minimum his birth into a noble family around 1270 would have meant that he was well aware of the political crisis underway in 1290s, when multiple claimants to the throne of Scotland asked the English king to arbitrate in order to forestall a civil war between different regions of the country.
Wallace's family was naturally loyal to the steward or "Guardian of Scotland" under whose domain their estates were included, and as such would have reacted strongly when the English King Edward I, over the protestations of the Guardians, demanded to be recognized as Lord Paramount of Scotland and placed John Balliol on the throne.
Balliol was an ineffective and largely nominal leader, and although he eventually organized troops to resist the planned English domination that became evident soon after his ascension to the throne, it was not until the emergence of William Wallace as a military leader that the Scottish found themselves turning the tide of the war.
By the time he was in his mid to late twenties, Wallace had already been selected as a Guardian of Scotland, fulfilling his role as a nobleman even as he was participating in one can only call guerrilla raids against the English. From the beginning Wallace's military exploits were characterized by these unconventional tactics, and they were the direct result of the political infighting and tumult of Scotland in the earliest years of the War of Independence. Although John Balliol had succeeded in forming a war council and organizing soldiers, a number of nobles refused to commit to the cause, frequently out of pique at supposed slights committed by Balliol in the naming of various leaders and officials; in reality, it seems reasonable to presume that many of the appointments that riled nobles such as Robert Bruce (whose father was the original counter-claimant to the throne of Scotland) were done at the behest of Edward, because a divided Scottish nobility meant far less effective resistance, both militarily and politically.
As a result, in the early stages of the war, Wallace and his compatriots were not able to rely on the support of all of Scotland's nobles, and thus resorted to hit-and-run tactics and assassination rather than risk open warfare.
Even when Scotland began to present a relatively united front, Wallace parlayed his experience with unconventional tactics and the Scottish terrain into sometimes stunning military victories, the most famous of which was the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Though the battle has been a mainstay of popular representations of Wallace's life and attempts are made to at least hint at the military skill Wallace displayed, nothing yet has come close to portraying the true, humiliating extent of the English defeat.
To begin with, it is necessary to point that the Scottish were severely outnumbered, but they were actually able to use this to their advantage. Rather than meet the English head-on in a manner that surely would have meant defeat but at least conformed to the most common style of combat at the time, the Scottish waited on the northern side of the River Forth for the English to come to them. This tactic simultaneously played to the Scots' strengths while giving the English a false sense of security, because the supposed timidity of the Scottish encouraged the English to charge straight across the narrow Stirling Bridge, rather than attempt to outflank the men waiting on the other side. Wallace likely commanded his troops from a small hill named Abbey Craig which overlooked the bridge, and he held them back until the English had sufficiently filled the bridge but before they were able to reach the other side.
It seems apparent that the English did not realize their folly until it was far too late, because they their cavalry across immediately behind their infantry, even though the bridge was so narrow that it could only fit two horsemen at a time. Furthermore, the English likely did not expect to be fighting on the bridge itself, because the English longbow archers, one of their most important military assets, would be largely useless until their troops had crossed and there was an open enough space to assault the Scottish without slaughtering their own infantry. Thus, when the tightly organized Scottish troops succeeded in repelling the first wave of English infantrymen, there was literally nowhere for them to go. Retreating infantrymen ran straight into the advancing cavalry, and the weight of the assembled men was so great that the bridge collapsed under them. A large portion of the English forces drowned almost immediately, and those who did not were quickly discovered and dispatched by the Scottish, who were far more familiar with the terrain.
The Battle of Stirling Bridge is the prime example of Wallace's military skill because it demonstrates how the confluence of unconventional tactics and a better knowledge of the terrain combined to allow a vastly numerically inferior force to overcome the English, who were not only better trained and more numerous, but also much more well-funded. Although the War of Independence would continue on and off for decades more, the Battle of Stirling Bridge represented a crucial turning point because it was the first decisive Scottish victory, and demonstrated the utility of unconventional tactics and localized strategy for overcoming overwhelming odds. In many respects, Wallace's military planning is representative of what has only recently been called "asymmetrical warfare," wherein a smaller and less well-equipped force need not engage in direct combat with a superior force, but rather use the superior force's size and training against it. The English troops were trained in traditional battle tactics of the time, and they would have been a formidable foe had the Scottish decided to meet them with the same tactics. Instead, the Scottish, under Wallace's leadership, opted to abandon any pretense of "noble" or chivalric combat, and as a result were able to crush the English at Stirling Bridge.
The importance of this victory to the larger Scottish effort cannot be understated, because it represented not only a tactical victory, but an ideological one as well. Wallace was able to demonstrate that the English forces were not invincible, and by rejecting common military tactics and strategies, he was implicitly denying the English the ability to frame their campaign in terms of nobility, chivalry, or honor. The English, like colonizers throughout history, attempted to portray themselves as inherently noble and respectable, and wanted to view their attempted conquest of Scotland as a reasonable and just endeavor; this is why Edward wanted to be named Lord Paramount of Scotland prior to his actual invasion, because it offered at least some nominal semblance of legitimacy. By rejecting standard tactics and delivering such a crushing, humiliating blow to the English military, Wallace forced the English, and more importantly, the Scottish, to recognize that there was nothing noble or honorable about the English military campaign, and furthermore, that English success was more dependent on them managing to force the Scottish to play by their rules rather than any inherent superiority or tactical skill.
Though William Wallace's military career was fairly short, the impact he had on Scottish history was immense, because for perhaps the first time in the history of the British Isles, he demonstrated the utility of unconventional tactics and a knowledge of local terrain when confronting numerically superior forces. Wallace not only changed the course of Scotland's history and helped ensure its independence, but also transformed military strategy, effectively dragging…