The Stirling Bridge Collapse of 1297 - An Engineer's Aspect


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Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Stirling Bridge Collapse of 1297

The Battle of Stirling Bridge. Source:

On September 11th, 1297, the Stirling Bridge collapsed in the middle of the Battle of Stirling Bridge. There is no definitive account or explanation of the mechanism of the structural failure. Some accounts attribute the collapse to the Scottish saying they deliberately weakened the bridge to sabotage the English attack.

Some accounts assert that the English destroyed the bridge to hinder the Scottish pursuit of the retreating English soldiers. Some historians say that the bridge was merely overloaded which caused the collapse. In any event, the bridge seemed to have been extremely overloaded and did collapse mid-battle.

The following is a very good account of the battle.

September 11th, 1297 - Battle of Stirling Bridge

"On the eve of the battle, some Scottish nobles had attempted to act as mediators between England and Scotland to secure a Scottish surrender. However, Wallace and Murray were not to be put off and established their position near Abbey Craig, north of the river Forth. Up until now, the Scots had relied on guerrilla warfare tactics, using speed and the element of surprise to attack the enemy. However, at Stirling Bridge, they now faced a typical, medieval, pitched battle."

Illustration of layout of The Battle of Stirling Bridge. Source: Scottish National Heritage.

"The day of the battle did not start well for the English army. The English commander Warenne, who was in his mid 60s, was still sleeping while his army had started crossing Stirling bridge. It's estimated over 5,000 had crossed the bridge before being recalled to the starting side by the awakened Warenne, who wished to hold a parade of his men. The wooden bridge at Stirling was so narrow only two cavalrymen could cross at one time. This took some time and the English lost the chance of establishing a strong early position over the river.

Later, Warenne sent two friars to the Scots commanders with the message that they should surrender. Wallace and Murray were not ready to do any such thing. Wallace showed his defiance when he replied saying: 'Tell your commander that we are not here to make peace but to do battle to defend ourselves and liberate our kingdom. Let them come on and we shall prove this in their very beards.'"

March on Stirling Bridge: The combined forces of William Wallace and Andrew de Moray take positions upon the Abbey Craig near Stirling, nervously awaiting victory or death against the oncoming English army. Source: MacBraveHeart.

"The English, perhaps expecting a pathetic surrender as at Irvine, were now in a quandary. If they stayed where they were, it would resolve nothing. If they crossed the bridge, they would be at a distinct disadvantage as the Scots were already formed up for battle, and would be able to charge them at any time. It was suggested that some of the English cavalry attack from the side, forming a diversion to allow the main body of troops to cross the bridge in relative safety. This was not done. Instead, the vanguard of the force started crossing. Cressingham, the Treasurer of Scotland who had said "There is no point in dragging out this business any longer and wasting our King's revenues for nothing. Let us advance and carry out our duty as we are bound to do" was one of those who crossed the bridge.

Wallace and Murray bided their time waiting until just the right moment. Then they played their hand, ordering their men to attack. The Scots infantry made for the bridge, to cut off the English troops' only route in and out of the battlefield. By doing so, they cut off the vanguard from the rest of the English army, who were then forced to watch the ensuing slaughter, which was only a matter of 50 metres away. As the English had crossed onto a causeway surrounded on 3 sides by the river, they had nowhere to retreat but over the bridge, which at some point in the battle was destroyed. They could not be reinforced, nor could they run for safety."

The Battle of Stirling Bridge. Source: MacBraveHeart.

"It's estimated that as many as 5,000 infantry, 300 archers and 100 knights of the English army were killed, either directly in the battle or by drowning trying to cross the river. Hardly any were able to make an escape from the slaughter. Cressingham died as a result of his foolhardy bravery, seemingly not in the glory of battle, but by falling off his horse and being killed by a Scots soldier who could not understand his pleas in French for mercy. Reflecting the barbarity of the times, it is reputed that parts of his skin were sent around Scotland to show he was dead, and that Wallace himself had a belt made of his opponent's skin.

The battle wasn't decisive in the way that Bannockburn 17 years later would be, but it was still a hugely important victory. Not only had Scotland shown it could defeat the heavy cavalry of the English army but Wallace and Murray had demonstrated their military skills and decision-making prowess. The assured defeat of the English at Stirling Bridge showed them to be most important figures in the rebellion, with the skills and resources to defeat the occupying forces in combat. However, it also had a serious negative effect on the Scottish cause as Murray was fatally wounded during the battle and died 2 months later."

In the 1995 film, "Braveheart," Mel Gibson portrayed William Wallace. From "Braveheart is the partly historical, partly mythological, story of William Wallace, a Scottish common man who fights for his country's freedom from English rule around the end of the 13th century."

The Battle of Stirling Bridge was portrayed in the movie--but without the bridge. "When asked by a local why the Battle of Stirling Bridge was filmed on an open plain, Gibson answered that 'the bridge got in the way'. 'Aye,' the local answered. 'That's what the English found ('"

Stirling Bridge. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The present day Stirling bridge is generally referred to as "The Old Stirling Bridge." Although this bridge is very old, it is not the bridge from the battle. In fact, "The Old Stirling Bridge" is probably about 65 yards downstream from the original wooden structure that collapsed in 1297.

From the "Archaeological Notes" of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland:
"The foundations of two piers of a bridge earlier than the 15th century one described under NS79SE 2 were discovered in 1905 some 65 yds upstream from the later bridge. The piers were about 28' long by 14' broad; they were 25' apart, the centre of the NE one being about 25 and 30 yds from the right bank. The above details were confirmed during the drought of 1955.

The word "pons" appears on three mid-15th century maps, and a bridge is represented on the burgh seal of Stirling in 1296, one year earlier than Wallace's battle in which the breaking down the bridge is traditionally an episode. The tradition implies that the bridge was wooden, and the representation of a stone bridge on the seal is probably a convention. In 1304 an allusion to boats suggests no bridge was available; in 1305 a bridge,, presumably of timber, was repaired. Between 1361 and 1391 a ferry replaced the bridge. In 1407 the bridge was said to be very ruinous. The work carried out then was evidently of some importance, and payments to the fabric are recorded in 1408 and 1415. This structure may again have been of wood, as the possibility of it being broken is mentioned by an English spy between 1424 and 1437."

Model of the Battle of Stirling Bridge © Stirling Smith Art Gallery & Museum. Source:

"In September 1996 a sonar survey by the British Geological Survey indicated another possible pier near the W bank of the river, under a large sand bank. In April 1997 two members of Stirling University Sub-Aqua Club probed the sand bank with long iron rods, and confirmed the pier indicated by sonar, and located another, previously unknown. Accurate survey revealed that all four piers lie on the same straight line. The Common Seal of Stirling Burgh, recorded in 1296, shows eight piers. Assuming this is correct, the search continues for the remaining piers."

If you would like a more thorough view of Scotland in 1297, watch "Lost Worlds-Braveheart's Scotland."

In "Lost Worlds-Braveheart's Scotland," a team of field investigators uncovers the clues that will recreate vanished or hidden worlds. They use the latest research, expert analysis and cutting edge graphic technology to take us back. At the end of the 13th century, Scotland is a country under attack. Defeat seems inevitable. But from nowhere emerges a man who will become Scotland's greatest hero -- William Wallace, more commonly known as Braveheart. Rising from obscurity he becomes a national symbol of patriotism and survival.

He is an inspirational leader living in a violent age when kings are building heavily fortified towns, and magnificent castles are constructed to withstand a new generation of weapons. Now, new research allows us to journey back to the Lost World that Braveheart fought for. Traveling down secret pathways that still lie beneath modern Scotland, we rediscover a surprisingly sophisticated culture that has not been seen for 700 years -- a world Braveheart died to protect. Uncovering the mysteries beneath the Eldersie we reveal the town that gave rise to the Guardian of Scotland.

Restoring the Castle of Lanark to its former glory we visit the place where Braveheart sought out his revenge for the murder of his wife. And rebuilding Stirling Bridge we relive Wallace's famous battle against the English army -- a turning point in the history of Scotland and in the life of its champion.