These days historians like nothing better than to play the ‘What if . . . ?’ game.
What if . . . . Bonnie Prince Charlie had kept marching south in 1746 instead of turning about at Derby? What if . . . . John Knox had decided to stay on as the Parish Priest in Haddington or if Henry VIII had said one morning ‘I think I’ll just stick with the first wife after all’?
In Scotland over the last month the events of 1314 and Bannockburn have been examined by various experts with most agreeing that it was one of the defining moments in our history when years of civil strife came to an end and independence was reasserted for a time at least.
But what if 16 years earlier at Falkirk the army of William Wallace, fighting to restore John Balliol to the Scottish throne, defeated the armies of King Edward I?
Tuesday, July 22, is the anniversary of that first battle of Falkirk where the Welsh archers and English knights destroyed the Scottish army. Like Bannockburn, the Scots had the choice of where to fight; like Bannockburn they were greatly outnumbered by a better trained and equipped enemy; and like Bannockburn the Scottish infantry were deployed in great phalanx rings or schiltroms with 15 foot spears packed closely together like giant porcupines. So why did Bannockburn end in triumph and Falkirk in terrible defeat?
Robert Bruce was an experienced battle commander and in 1314 he spent many weeks training his spearmen in the difficult art of moving forward en masse towards the enemy without losing formation. He knew when the English were coming and where they would come to so he was able to position his schiltroms on high, dry ground leaving the lower and wetter land to the enemy.
Wallace also placed his schiltroms on high ground forcing the advancing English to manoeuvre their way across wet ground. However there seems to have been no advance training; Wallace believed his soldiers would stand firm against attack and wear down the knights before breaking out and confronting the English footmen. At Bannockburn the slowly advancing spearmen kept in tight formation, absorbed the shock of attack and pressed the knights back on top of their own infantry penned in by the River Forth and the two burns to the north and south.
At a crucial moment in both battles the English called up their archers to attack the Scots from open ground. Faced with this threat Wallace looked to his own horsemen to scatter them but the Scottish nobles who commanded the hundred or so cavalry had left the field fearing defeat and lacking confidence in Wallace, a man of lower birth than them. At Bannockburn it was different. Five hundred horsemen rode down the archers and allowed the Scottish infantry to press forward to victory. At Falkirk the archers poured a deadly rain of arrows into the heart of the Scots and ‘they fell like blossoms in an orchard when the fruit ripens’. Rout and defeat followed and Scotland was once again under the hammer of Edward.
So what if the Scots had been better prepared or if the cavalry had remained to do their duty? Triumph for Wallace? Maybe. And if so probably no King Robert the Bruce, no Bannockburn and a very different Scottish story in the years that followed.
Of course we will never know. . . but it’s fun to ask “What if . . . ?