William Wallace—The Battle of Stirling Bridge
Day by day the army of Wallace grew. From castle after castle he drove the English. And because he had not soldiers enough to guard these castles, he pulled many of them down.
At last King Edward, hearing of all that Wallace was doing, sent a great army to conquer him. Wallace was then laying siege to the castle of Dunbar. Dunbar was now the only fortress in the north which still remained in the hands of the English, although it was but a year since Edward had gone home thinking that he had conquered Scotland.
As soon as Wallace heard that the English were coming, he left Dunbar and marched to meet them. The two armies came in sight of each other near the Forth. That night they camped one on each side of the river, not far from the town of Stirling.
Wallace had many men, but the English had three times more, and he knew that it would take both skill and bravery to win the day. So he had chosen his position well and carefully. He had encamped on high ground above the Forth, and in such a position that most of his men could not be seen by the English, and therefore they could not tell how many men he had.
The river was swift and deep, and crossed only by one narrow bridge. So narrow indeed was the bridge that only two men could walk abreast. To take a whole army across this narrow bridge was very dangerous. Yet it was the only way of reaching the Scots, who lay securely awaiting the enemy on the opposite side.
The English leader felt it to be so dangerous, that in the morning he sent two friars to Wallace, asking him to make peace, and promising him pardon if he would lay down his arms.
"Go back," replied Wallace proudly, "and tell your master that we care not for the pardon of the King of England. We did not come here in peace. We came ready for battle. We are determined to avenge our wrongs and to set our country free. Let the English come and attack us; we are ready to meet them beard for beard."
The friars went back, and the English general was so angry at this bold answer, that he resolved to attack at once, cost what it might. So two by two his men marched across the narrow bridge. On and on they came, yet the Scots moved not hand or foot. But, when a good part of the English army had passed over, a company of Scots stole quickly round the hill, and taking possession of the end of the bridge, they cut off those of the English who had already crossed from those who were still on the other side.
Then, as soon as Wallace saw that the English army was thus cut in two, he thundered down the hill upon them. The English had had no time to form in proper order after crossing the bridge, and now, when the Scots dashed down upon them, they were thrown into utter confusion.
Fearful bloodshed followed. Hundreds fell beneath the long spears and broadswords of the Scots. Hundreds more were drowned in the river. Men and horses struggled together in wild disordered masses. Of all who crossed that narrow bridge, only three returned alive.
When the soldiers on the other side saw what was happening they turned and fled, their leader with them. He who had been sent to subdue Scotland galloped madly southward, never stopping until he had reached Berwick. Then, after a few hours' rest, he fled still further, far into England.
Half the English army lay dead upon the field. Scotland rang with shouts of joy. The power of the English King was broken once more.
But the land was wasted, barren and desolate. The fields lay untilled. The people starved, and there was not even bread for the army. So Wallace led his men into England. There they found bread enough and to spare. There for three months they lived, fighting, ravaging, and carrying off great spoil from the English.
Wallace was now made Governor of Scotland. But although the people chose Wallace to be Governor, the lords and barons were not pleased. They were jealous of the great love and fame which Wallace had won by his bravery, and they were so proud that they could not bear to think of being ruled by a man who was only a simple gentleman and not a great lord. But this simple gentleman had shown that he was the one man who could break the power of England, and he was the best ruler for Scotland at the time. Much sorrow might have been spared the land, if those proud nobles had put away their foolish jealousies, and had thought, not of themselves, but only of their country.