Critical Position of the English Army
The consequences of this inactivity were soon apparent. The Scottish barons still delayed the delivery of their hostages, and cautiously awaited the event of the war; whilst Wallace, at the head of a powerful army, having succeeded in expelling the English from the castles of Forfar, Brechin, Montrose, and nearly all their strongholds on the north of the Forth, had just begun the siege of the castle of Dundee, when he received intelligence that the English army, under the command of the Earl of Surrey, and Cressingham the treasurer, was on its march to Stirling. Well acquainted with the country there, his military skill taught him of what importance it would be to secure the high ground on the river Forth, above Cambuskenneth, before Surrey had passed the bridge at Stirling; and having commanded the citizens of Dundee, on pain of death, to continue the siege of the castle, he marched with great expedition, and found, to his satisfaction, that he had anticipated the English, so as to give him time to choose the most favourable position for his army, before the columns of Cressingham and Surrey had reached the other side of the river.
The nature of the ground concealed the Scottish army, which amounted to forty thousand foot, and one hundred and eighty horse. Wallace's intention was to induce the main body of the English to pass the bridge, and to attack them before they had time to form. Surrey was superior in numbers. He commanded a force of fifty thousand foot soldiers, and one thousand armed horse. Lord Henry Percy had marched from Carlisle towards Stirling, with a reinforcement of eight thousand foot and three hundred horse; but Cressingham the treasurer, dreading the expense of supporting so great a force, had, with an ill-judged economy, given orders for the disbanding these succours, as he considered the army in the field to be sufficient for the emergency.
The Steward of Scotland, the Earl of Lennox, and others of the Scottish barons, were at this time with the English army; and on coming to Stirling, requested Surrey to delay an attack till they had attempted to bring Wallace to terms. They soon returned, and declared that they had failed in their hopes of pacification, but that they themselves would join the English force with sixty armed horse. It was now evening, and the Scottish barons, in leaving the army, met a troop of English soldiers returning from forage. Whether from accident or design, a skirmish took place between these two bodies, and the Earl of Lennox" stabbed an English soldier in the throat. This, of course, raised a tumult in the camp; a cry arose that they were betrayed by the Scots; and there seems to be little doubt that Lennox and his friends were secretly negotiating with Wallace, and only waited for a favourable opportunity of joining him. Crying out for vengeance, the English soldiers carried their wounded comrade before their general, and reproached him with having trusted those who had broken their faith, and would betray them to the enemy. "Stay this one night,'' said he, "and if to-morrow they do not keep their promise, you shall have ample revenge." He then commanded his soldiers to be ready to pass the bridge next day: and thus, with a carelessness little worthy of an experienced commander, who had the fate of a great army dependent on his activity and foresight, he permitted Wallace to tamper with his countrymen in the English service; to become acquainted with the numbers and array of the English force; and to adopt, at his leisure, his own measures for their discomfiture.
Early next day, five thousand foot and a large body of the Welsh passed the bridge by sunrise, and soon after repassed it, on finding that they were not followed by the rest of the army, and that the Earl of Surrey was still asleep in the camp. After an hour the earl awoke, the army was drawn up, and as was then usual before any great battle, many new knights were created, some of whom were fated to die in their first field. It was now the time when the Scottish barons ought to have joined with their sixty horse; and Surrey, having looked for them in vain, commanded the infantry to cross the bridge. This order was scarcely given when it was again recalled, as the Steward of Scotland and the Earl of Lennox were seen approaching, and it was hoped, brought offers of pacification. But the contrary was the case. They had failed, they said, in all their efforts to prevail on the Scottish army to listen to any proposals, and had not been able to persuade a single soldier to desert. As a last resource, Surrey, who seems to have been aware of the strong position occupied by the Scots, and of the danger of crossing the river, despatched two friars to propose terms to Wallace, who made this memorable reply :—" Return to your friends, and tell them that we came here with no peaceful intent, but ready for battle, and determined to avenge our own wrongs and set our country free. Let your masters come and attack us: we are ready to meet them beard to beard."