William Wallace is one of Scotland's greatest national heroes, undisputed
leader of the Scottish resistance forces during the first years of the long and ultimately
successful struggle to free Scotland from English rule at the end of the 13th
Records of Wallace's life are patchy and often inaccurate. This is
partly because early accounts of his heroic deeds are speculative, and partly because he
inspired such fear in the minds of English writers at the time, that they demonised him,
his achievements, and his motives.
Many of the stories surrounding Wallace have been
traced to a late-15th Century romance "The Wallace", ascribed to
Henry the minstrel, or "Blind Harry". This epic is vehemently anti-English in
language and tone. The most popular tales about Wallace are not supported by documentary
evidence, but they show his firm hold on the imagination of his people. He represented the
spirit of the common man striving for freedom against oppression, and exposed the Scottish
nobility of the time as a group of unprincipled opportunists.
Wallace's place as a hero in Scottish history is assured. There can be little doubt that
he has always been revered as a self-effacing and passionate patriot by later generations
of Scots. Unlike the conniving Scottish nobles who had collaborated with the English in
return for financial benefits, Wallace had never sought personal fame nor benefited from
it. He had accrued neither wealth nor land.
Wallace was born
in around 1270, probably near Ellerslie (now Elderslie), in Ayrshire, Scotland. His father
was Sir Malcolm Wallace, Laird of Elderslie and Auchinbothie, a small landowner and
little-known Scottish knight. [Note: in 1999 the seal of Sir Wallace was
translated from the archaic latin. On his seal it says he is the son of
'Alan'.] His mother is believed to have been the daughter of Sir Hugh
Crawford, Sheriff of Ayr, and he is thought to have had an elder brother, also called
Malcolm. Because he was the second son, William did not inherit his father's title or
At the time of Wallace's birth, Alexander III had already been on
Scotland's throne for over twenty years. His reign had seen a period of peace, economic
stability, and prosperity and he had successfully fended off continuing English claims to
suzerainty. King Edward I (known as Edward "Longshanks") came to the throne of
England in 1272, two years after Wallace was born.
There is almost no reliable information about William Wallace's
early life. He is said to have spent his childhood at Dunipace, near Stirling, under the
supervision of his uncle, who was a priest. Wallace probably led a comfortable and
peaceful life as the son of a nobleman. He and his brother Malcolm must also have trained
in the martial arts of the time, - including horsemanship and swordsmanship. Contemporary
chroniclers say that William was a large, powerful man. He reportedly stood more than six
and a half feet tall, - a veritable giant at a time when the average height of an
infantryman was only slightly more than five feet.
Carrick, in his Life of Sir William Wallace of Elderslie,
consolidates some of the available historical descriptions of Wallace as follows:
"His visage was long, well-proportioned, and exquisitely
beautiful; his eyes were bright and piercing, the hair of his head and beard auburn, and
inclined to curl; that on his brows and eyelashes was of a lighter shade. His lips were
round and full. His stature was lofty and majestic, rising head and shoulders above the
tallest men in the country. Yet his form, though gigantic, possessed the most perfect
symmetry, and with a degree of strength almost incredible, there was combined such an
agility of body and fleetness in running that no-one, except when mounted on horseback,
could outstrip or escape from him when he happened to pursue."
In 1286, by the time he was about sixteen, Wallace may have been
preparing to pursue a life in the church. In that year, Alexander III died after riding
off a cliff during a wild storm. None of Alexander III's children survived him. After his
death, his young granddaughter, Margaret, the 'Maid of Norway', was declared Queen of
Scotland by the Scottish lords, but was still only a little girl of 4 who was living in
Norway. An interim Scottish government run by 'guardians' was set up to govern until
Margaret was old enough to take up the throne. However, Edward I of England took advantage
of the uncertainty and potential instability over the Scottish succession. He agreed with
the guardians that Margaret should marry his son and heir Edward of Caernarvon (afterwards
Edward II of England), on the understanding that Scotland would be preserved as a separate
Margaret fell ill and died unexpectedly in 1290 at the age of 8 in
the Orkney Islands on her way from Norway to England. 13 claimants to the Scottish throne
came forward, most of whom were from the Scottish nobility.
Scotland was essentially occupied by the English at this time, and
was beset by its own internal conflicts. The various aristocratic Scottish guardians of
the throne plotted against one another, variously aligning themselves with King Edward or
defying their loyalty to him when it suited them. At the same time English troops,
including mercenaries and frequently disgruntled Welsh and Irish conscripts, operated
freely throughout Scotland from stockaded camps and fortified garrisons. Civilian life was
precarious, and abuses by the occupiers against the common people were rife. The Scottish
nobles did little to maintain the rule of law and protect Scots from atrocities.
In this climate of lawlessness, William Wallace's father was killed
in a skirmish with English troops in 1291. It is likely that the death of his father at
the hands of the English contributed to Wallace's lifelong desire to fight for his
nation's independence. However, little is known about Wallace's life during this period,
except that he lived the life of an outlaw, moving constantly to avoid the English, and
occasionally confronting them with characteristic ferocity.
Carrick's describes Wallace's skills as a warrior:
"All powerful as a swordsman and unrivalled as an archer,
his blows were fatal and his shafts unerring: as an equestrian, he was a model of
dexterity and grace; while the hardships he experienced in his youth made him view with
indifference the severest privations incident to a military life."
In the absence of a clear successor to the Scottish throne, the
claimants to the Scottish throne requested Edward I's arbitration. The three main
candidates were all descendants of David, Earl of Huntingdon, who was the brother of
William the Lion, king of Scotland from 1165 to 1214. John de Balliol was the grandson of
David's eldest daughter; Robert de Bruce was the son of David's
second daughter, and John de Hastings was the grandson of David's youngest daughter. In
1292, Balliol was chosen as king by a special commission one half of whose whose members
were chosen by Bruce and the other half by Balliol.
Balliol took an oath of fealty, paid homage to Edward, and was
accepted in Scotland. However, Edward I's motives had not really been to help the Scots as
an arbitrator. He saw himself as the feudal superior of the Scottish crown, and wished to
install a Scottish monarch whom he could manipulate.
Edward underestimated the Scots' belief in their own sovereignty.
When he sought to exert his suzerainty by taking law cases on appeal from Scottish courts
to his own court in England, and by summoning Balliol to do military service for him
against France, he turned the Scottish throne against him. In the meantime, England had
been at war with France. In 1295, a treaty was negotiated between Edward I and the French
that provided for the marriage of John de Balliol's son Edward to the French King's niece.
Edward demanded the surrender of three castles on the Scottish border and, on John's
refusal, summoned him to his court. John did not obey, and war was inevitable.
Edward marched north with his armies. After a five-month campaign,
he conquered Scotland in 1297. Following his victory, he appointed his own agents to
enforce peace in Scotland. He deposed and imprisoned John de Balliol and declared himself
ruler of Scotland. He also had the Stone of Destiny, the coronation stone of Scone, taken
south to Westminster. The government of Scotland was placed in the hands of Englishmen led
by Hugh Cressingham, the Earl of Surrey.
Outside the south-east corner of Scotland, there was widespread
disorder, and defiance against the English was increasing. Wallace was involved in a fight
with local soldiers in the village of Ayr. After killing several of them, he was
overpowered and thrown into a dungeon where he was slowly starved. Wallace was left for
dead, but sympathetic villagers nursed him back to health. When he had regained his
strength, Wallace recruited several local rebels and began his systematic and merciless
assault on the hated English and their Scottish sympathisers.
As his support grew, Wallace's attacks broadened. In May 1297, with
as many as 30 men, he avenged his father's death by ambushing and killing the knight
responsible and some of his soldiers. Now, he was no longer merely an outlaw but a local
military leader who had struck down one of Edward's knights and some of his soldiers.
William Wallace had become the king's enemy.
Although most of Scotland was in Scottish hands by August 1297,
Wallace successfully recruited a band of commoners and small landowners to attack the
remaining English garrisons between the Rivers Forth and Tay. Wallace and his co-leader, Sir Andrew de Moray, marched their forces towards Stirling
Castle, a stronghold of vital strategic importance to the English. The English commanders
must have been falsely confident that the upstart Scots would retreat or surrender. On
Sept 11, 1297, the English army under John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, confronted him near
Stirling. Wallace's forces were greatly outnumbered, but Surrey had to cross a narrow
bridge over the River Forth before he could reach the Scottish positions. Wallace's men
lured the English into making an impulsive advance, and slaughtered them as they crossed
the river. English fatalities are reported to have approached 5,000, gaining Wallace an
overwhelming victory. He had shown not only that he was a charismatic leader and warrior,
but also that his tactical military ability was strong. Never before had a Scottish
army so triumphed over an English aggressor. Wallace captured Stirling Castle and for the
moment Scotland was almost free of occupying forces.
At the time of the battle of Stirling Bridge, Wallace and de Moray
were both in their late twenties. Neither could yet claim to be Scottish national heroes,
and they were not recognised by their aristocratic enemies in Scotland as anything more
than local commanders. Under Wallace, the Scots, - commoners and knights, rather than
nobles, - were united in a focused fight for freedom from foreign rule. Whereas the
Scottish nobility had usually given in to English demands for allegiance, Wallace's
patriotic force remained unequivocally dedicated to the struggle for Scottish
In October of 1296, Wallace invaded northern England and ravaged the
counties of Northumberland and Cumberland. Upon returning to Scotland early in December
1297, he was knighted and proclaimed guardian of the kingdom, ruling in Balliol's name. In
less than six years, he had risen from obscurity to become Sir William Wallace, holder of
one of the most powerful posts in the kingdom. Nevertheless, many Scottish nobles lent him
only grudging support, and he had yet to meet Edward I in a head-on confrontation.
Wallace's acclaim following the battle of Stirling Bridge was
short-lived. Edward returned to England from campaigning in France in March 1298. On July
3 he invaded Scotland, intending to crush Wallace and all those daring to assert
Scotland's independence. On July 22, Edward's 90,000-strong army attacked a much smaller
Scottish force led by Wallace near Falkirk. The English army was at a technological
advantage. Its longbow-men decimated Wallace's spearmen and cavalry by firing scores of
arrows over great distances. As many as 10,000 Scots may have been killed. Although Edward
failed to subdue Scotland completely before returning to England, Wallace's military
reputation was ruined. He retreated to the thick woods nearby and resigned his
guardianship in December. He was succeeded as guardian of the kingdom by Robert de Bruce
(later King Robert I) and Sir John Comyn "the Red".
From the autumn of 1299 until 1303, nothing certain is known about
Wallace's activities. There is some evidence to suggest that he went to France with
several loyal supporters on a diplomatic mission to seek support from King Philip IV.
Philip may have furnished him with letters of recommendation to Pope Boniface VIII and
King Hakon of Norway. Then, in 1303, the Treaty of Paris effectively ended hostilities
between England and France.
Having made peace with the French, Edward renewed his conquest of
Scotland in earnest. He captured Stirling in 1304, and although most of the Scottish
nobles pledged allegiance to the English crown, he continued to pursue the outlaw Wallace
relentlessly. Edward's refusal to acknowledge Wallace as a worthy enemy from a separate
country meant that the English could officially regard Wallace as a traitor to the English
On Aug 5 1305, Wallace was betrayed by a Scottish knight in service
to the English king, and arrested near Glasgow. He was taken to London and denied the
status of a captured soldier. He was tried for the wartime murder of civilians (he
allegedly spared "neither age nor sex, monk nor nun"). He was condemned as a
traitor to the king even though, as he correctly maintained, he had never sworn allegiance
On 23rd August 1305, he was executed. At that time (and
for the next 550 years), the punishment for the crime of treason was that the convicted
traitor was dragged to the place of execution, hanged by the neck (but not until he was
dead), and disembowelled (or drawn) while still alive. His entrails were burned before his
eyes, he was decapitated and his body was divided into four parts (or quartered).
Accordingly, this was Wallace's fate. His head was impaled on a spike and displayed at
London Bridge, his right arm on the bridge at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, his left arm at
Berwick, his right leg at Perth, and the left leg at Aberdeen. Edward may have believed
that with Wallace's capture and execution, he had at last broken the spirit of the Scots.
He was wrong. By executing Wallace so barbarically, Edward had martyred a popular Scots
military leader and fired the Scottish people's determination to be free.
Almost immediately, Robert I the Bruce revived the national
rebellion that was to win independence for Scotland. He succeeded and was crowned king of
Scotland in 1306.
On his way to reconquer Scotland, Edward died near Carlisle.
Several hundred years later in the 19th century, statues
commemorating Sir William Wallace were erected overlooking the River Tweed and in Lanark.
In 1869, the 220-foot high National Wallace Monument was completed on a hill near
Stirling. This huge tower now dominates the area where the Scots fought their most
decisive battles against the English in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries at
Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn.
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