William Wallace—The Battle of Falkirk
During this time King Edward had been in a far-off land called Flanders. Now he returned, and full of anger against Wallace, gathered an army and once more marched to Scotland. "Had I been in England," he said, "Wallace durst not have done such cruelties to my people."
"I chose but my time in England," replied Wallace, "I chose but the time when King Edward was out of it, as King Edward chose his time in Scotland when he found the same without a leader. For when the nobles took him as a friend to decide upon the rights of those who were struggling for the throne, he tried to conquer the kingdom for himself."
It was a great and mighty army that now marched into Scotland with King Edward at its head. Horsemen and footmen, great lords and barons, and all the proudest and best warriors of England were there. Wallace, too, had a large army, but his were mostly foot soldiers. Only the great in Scotland rode in those days, and as you know, few of the great nobles had joined Wallace.
Wallace knew that it was best not to try to fight a battle against the whole strength of Edward's army. He hoped rather to weaken the English by hunger and weariness. So he laid waste the country through which they would have to pass. And when Edward came, he found only a desolate, deserted land, with no food for his men to eat, and no enemy for them to fight.
But Wallace and his army were never far off. Whenever they saw a chance of attacking a small company of the English, they came out of their hiding-place and fell upon them. Having killed as many as they could, they would dash away again and wait for another chance.
Thus with many little fights, or skirmishes as they are called, by the way, Edward marched far into Scotland without fighting any great battle, or even finding out where Wallace and his men really were.
At last Edward grew tired of marching through a barren land, in search of an enemy who would not fight an open battle. He had given orders to his men to turn and march home again, when a sad thing for Scotland happened. Two of the jealous Scottish nobles came to Edward and told him where the Scottish army lay. They were not far off, in a forest, near a town called Falkirk. These wicked nobles not only told Edward where the Scottish army lay, but they also told what plans Wallace had made. "Hearing that you are turning homeward," they said, "he is going to take you by surprise at night and attack you from behind."
"Thanks be to God, who hitherto hath brought us safe through every danger," cried Edward, when he heard the news. "They shall not need to follow me, since I shall forthwith go to meet them."
Not a moment was lost. The order to advance was given. The King himself was the first to put on his armour, the first to mount his horse. Without rest, the soldiers marched onward while daylight lasted. When night fell they lay down where they were, clad in their armour, their weapons beside them and their shields for pillows. Horse and horseman lay together, so that each man was ready at the least alarm to vault into his saddle. Among them, like any other soldier, lay the King beside his horse.
In the middle of the night a sudden cry arose. The enemy was upon them! Their King was wounded! In a moment all was bustle and preparation. Every man seized his weapon and stood ready in his place. But there was no enemy. The King indeed was wounded, but by his own horse, which had kicked him in the side, and broken two of his ribs.
As the camp was now thoroughly aroused, and as morning was not far off, the King gave the order to advance. He himself, in spite of his hurt, mounted upon his horse and led the way.
Through the grey morning light the army marched, and as the first beams of the sun shone out they were flashed back from the glittering spears of the Scots army. At last the long-looked-for enemy was in sight.
It was but a little army compared with the English. But Wallace was not afraid. He divided his men into four companies and placed them to the best advantage. "I have brought you to the ring," he said, "now let me see how you can dance," meaning, "I have brought you to the battlefield, let me see how you will fight."
And bravely and well did these Scotsmen fight. But it was the people only, the foot soldiers, who fought. For hardly had the battle begun than the horsemen turned and rode from the field, without giving or taking a blow. Oh bitter was the heart of Wallace as he watched them go! The nobles had forsaken him.
The famous English archers showered arrows on the Scottish spearmen. So true was their aim that it was said that every archer carried four-and-twenty Scottish lives beneath his belt. Which meant that he carried twenty-four arrows in his quiver, and with every arrow he killed a man.
The English horsemen, splendid in glittering steel armour, charged the sturdy Scottish archers. They, although they were armed only with their bows and arrows and short daggers, would not yield. To a man they fell where they stood. So gallant and brave were they that even their enemies praised them.
But no bravery could stand against such numbers and such skill. Wallace, seeing that the battle was hopelessly lost, commanded his men to retire. With his best knights round him he fought bravely to the last, keeping the enemy off until his soldiers had found shelter in the forest behind.
Nearly fifteen thousand Scots were slain upon the field, among them Sir John the Graham, the dear friend of Wallace.
Next day Wallace returned to bury the dead and to seek for the body of his friend.
So he mourned his loss.
When the rough soldiers saw how sad their master was, they sorrowed with him. Then taking up the dead body of the Graham, they carried him to the church at Falkirk. Over his grave they laid a stone and carved these words upon it,
Thus Wallace had lost his wife and his friend, and in spite of his brave struggles it seemed as if he would lose his country. He gave up his post of Governor of Scotland. The happiness of his country was all he longed for. He saw that it was useless to struggle against the jealousy of the barons. They would never consent to be ruled by him. He could not even hope to lead his army to victory when the nobles were ever ready to desert him, as they did at Falkirk.
So Wallace once more became a simple country gentleman.
It is said that in this battle of Falkirk, Robert the Bruce, who afterwards became such a good King in Scotland, fought on the side of the English. After the battle Bruce and Wallace met. They were both brave men, and Bruce was filled with admiration for the courage and skill of Wallace. "But," he said, "what is the use of it? You cannot overcome so great a King as Edward. And if you could, the Scots would never make you King. Why do you not yield to him as all the other nobles have done?"
"I do not fight for the crown," replied Wallace, "I neither desire it nor deserve it. It is yours by right. But because of your sloth and idleness the people have no leader. So they follow me. I fight only for the liberty of my country, and should surely have won it, if you and the other nobles had but done your part. But you choose base slavery with safety rather than honest liberty with danger. Follow, hug the fortune, then, of which you think so highly. As for me, I will die free in my own country. My love for it shall remain as long as my life lasts."
At these words Bruce burst into tears, and never again did he fight for Edward.
Edward now marched through Scotland, but he found only a deserted country. Burned towns and ruined castles met him everywhere, for the people had destroyed their homes, rather than that they should fall into the hands of the English King. His soldiers began to starve, and at last, angry and sullen, he was forced to march back to England, leaving the North still unconquered.
Hardly had he left the country when messengers came to him, telling him that the southern Scots had again risen, and were driving out every English soldier whom he had left to guard his conquests. So again he gathered an army and marched back to Scotland, and for seven long years the struggle lasted. Five times during those years did Edward's army ravage Scotland. Broken, crushed, but still unconquered, the people fought on. Had they only been united under some strong leader, the struggle would not have lasted so long. But since Wallace had given up in despair no great leader had arisen.