STONED GRUNTS - by David Pilling
‘To Edward I the longbow owes its original rise to favour.’ - Charles Oman, The Art of War in the Middle Ages
The popular image of longbows at Falkirk rests on a single line from an account of the battle given by Walter of Hemingburgh: “But our foot-soldiers shot at them with arrows, and then, securing a quantity of round stones, of which there was abundance near, stoned them.”
And that’s it. None of the other chronicle accounts put any emphasis on archers, while some don’t mention missile troops at all. The chronicles of Lanercost and Rishanger claim the battle was won by Edward’s cavalry, who outflanked the schiltrons. It’s difficult to see how this achieved very much, since Wallace’s spearmen were arranged in rings and you can’t ‘outflank’ a circle. The cavalry certainly charged, as the loss of over a hundred horses listed on an expenses roll afterwards shows. These were merely the horses lost by the paid cavalry; the unpaid probably amounted to two or three times that number. Casualties among the riders, however, were very light. Only two English knights were killed, one of them the Master of the Templars, and a handful of squires. Hemingburgh says that the cavalry wiped out Wallace’s archers, but were unable to break the massed spears. This job was done by the bowmen, who opened enough gaps for the cavalry to charge in again and sweep Wallace’s men from the field.
A glance at the wage lists for Edward’s army suggests the battle was realy won, not by archers or mounted knights, but the P.B.I. (Poor Bloody Infantry). Edward’s army was huge, and the total number of English and Welsh footsoldiers during the period up to 20 July, two days before the battle, was 25, 781. For the next period, covering the battle, this number is reduced to 22, 497, a drop of 3284. Granted, the army was suffering from lack of supplies, and some of these men may have deserted. Yet such a dramatic cut in numbers cannot have been due to desertion alone, and the likelihood is that most of the missing men were casualties, killed or wounded on the day of battle. The Welsh contingent of Edward’s army numbered 10,584, and from 21 July six contingents of Welsh suffered a total loss of 195 men. Thus, even though the Welsh made up almost half of Edward’s infantry, the majority of the casualties were suffered by his English troops.
Who were these faceless grunts? Most are recorded only as numbers on a payroll, with few names given. The chroniclers generally ignored them, though the Chronicle of Bartholomew Cotton does at least give one account of how footsoldiers were raised in this era. According to Cotton, a commission of array was set up in the southern counties for service in Gascony in 1295. Hugh Cressingham and William Mortimer came into Norfolk and summoned from the local towns and villages a large number of potential recruits at Newmarket. The men were inspected there, and those not up to standard sent home. Those who remained were issued with white tunics, sword and knives, all provided for at the expense of local communities. Shortly afterwards the muster was abandoned, and the tunics - called ‘blaunchecotes’ - stolen and sold off by local profiteers. The blaunchecotes were worth 3 shillings each, suggesting they were padded jackets or aketons rather than simple tunics dyed white.
We may picture, then, the mass of Edward’s infantry as conscripted peasants, kitted out in their white aketons and armed with swords and knives. They were paid 2d (pence) a day and arranged into units of twenty, each unit commanded by a vintenar. Five sections of twenty men were combined under the command of a centenar, a fully-equipped cavalryman with a barded horse. As desertion or death thinned the ranks, units would be combined together and reformed. The rolls show that archers carried a quiver apiece with no more than two dozen arrows, which explains why they ran out at Falkirk.
The number of casualties on the Scottish side is impossible to ascertain. No wage lists exist for Wallace’s army, and the English chroniclers gleefully exaggerated the losses: Guisborough claimed that fifty thousand Scots were killed, while Rishanger went for sixty thousand. Lanercost went the whole hog and suggested a hundred thousand. Rishanger also claimed that the Scots had the larger army, which seems unlikely. We can only rely on scraps of evidence. Geoffrey Barrow, for instance, noted that between forty to sixty of the free tenants of Coldingham fought for Wallace at Falkirk, and many killed. The most conservative figure on the English side comes from the official report of the Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield to the mayor and aldermen of London. He stated that 200 Scottish men-at-arms and 20,000 infantrymen had died on the field. For a very rough estimate, it may be permissible to halve this figure. A 3-1 kill ratio, given that most losses in a medieval battle occured when one side broke and ran, seems realistic.
There was a darker element to the Edwardian military system. From 1294 onwards the king was at war on several fronts and in desperate need of men. One solution was to empty England’s prisons and fill the ranks with convicts. A number of these criminals most definitely served at Falkirk. In the weeks after the battle, Edward pardoned over 150 men for various crimes in return for doing military service in Scotland, Flanders and Gascony. Of these, 125 received their pardon for service in Scotland, which must have included the battle. Most of these men were murderers, with the occasional rapist or thief among them. One man, William le Fevre of Haydenbrigg, had been hanged at Newcastle for robbery, taken for dead and removed for burial to a local church. He was found to be alive, and so sent off to Scotland to fight ‘for the honour of God and the reverence of St James.’ None of the convicts received wages, and their pardons were conditional upon good service. If they misbehaved, the gallows beckoned.
With twenty-four arrows apiece in their quivers, Edward’s archers must have killed a fair few Scots. Once the ammo ran out, they were apparently reduced to lobbing stones. The loss of over three thousand men from the infantry suggests the grim work of tearing apart the schiltrons was still not done, and had to be achieved at close quarters. We may imagine the chaos and the bloodshed as Wallace’s spearmen fought hand-to-hand against untrained peasant levies and murderous convicts. Thousands of English footsoldiers were killed, but they had served their purpose. Once the schiltrons were ‘softened up’, Edward sent in his cavalry again to finish the job. They probably galloped over a fair few of their own infantrymen in the process, but who cares about those guys?