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Sir William Wallace
Chapter IX The Patriot Hero


IT is matter of deep regret that the facts of the personality and career of Wallace still remain so obscure. There is no alternative but to piece them together painfully from the strange miscellany of available materials, perplexed, distorted, fragmentary, and fabulous. Yet when the misrepresentations of virulent foes and adulatory admirers are firmly brushed away, the patriot hero stands forth, incontestably, as one of the grandest figures in history.

On the death of Alexander III., Scotland sank from the crest of prosperity into the very trough of adversity. The brief reigns of the infant Margaret and the puppet Balliol only served as breathing-space for the marshalling of the forces of internal conflict to the profit of a powerful and remorseless aggressor. Industry was unsettled; commerce was disorganised. The King was contemned; the nobles were distrusted. Both King and nobles were liegemen of the foreigner, while the free commons sullenly nourished the passion of immemorial independence. Scotland was indeed 'stad in perplexytè.' Her 'gold wes changyd in to lede.' When, and whence, would ever come succour and remede?

Succour and remede sprang, naturally, from the insolence and oppression of the minions of the invader. Little did Wallace know or reck of the solemn farce enacted at Norham and Berwick, or of the feudal rights of Balliol or another. Like a deliverer of old, 'he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens'; 'when he saw there was no man, he slew the Englishman, and hid him in the sand.' An outlaw, he drew to him friends, free lances, probably enough desperadoes, and waged such guerrilla warfare as was possible against the oppressors of his family and his countrymen. Some other knights and squires similarly maintained themselves in the forests and fastnesses of the land. But there must have been some distinctive and commanding qualities in the man that was able to step forward in that dark hour from an obscure social position to lead the forlorn hope of Scottish independence.

'Wallace's make, as he grew up to manhood,' says Tytler, 'approached almost to the gigantic; and his personal strength was superior to the common run of even the strongest men.' Even Burton dissociates himself from belief in this statement. But surely, though 'the later romancers and minstrels' have 'profusely trumpeted Wallace's personal prowess and superhuman strength,' the assertion of Tytler makes no great draft on one's credulity. On the contrary, in an age when warlike renown depended so essentially on personal deeds of derring-do, the astonishing thing—the incredible thing—would be if Wallace had not been a man of preeminent physical strength and resourcefulness in the use of arms. By what other means, indeed, could the second son of an obscure knight, a mere youth just out of his teens, living the life of an outlaw, uncountenanced by the support of a single great noble, by any possibility have maintained himself, attracted adherents, impressed the enemy, and become the hero of a nation, if he did not possess quite exceptional physical strength and prowess? How is it possible that a man that had gone through the hardships of a desperate guerrilla, as Wallace must have done, should be other than a man 'of iron frame'? Ajax was taller than Agamemnon; and Jop may have stood a head higher than Wallace. But the substantial fact of his impressive physique is not to be denied. The romancers exaggerate, of course; but on this point even Harry scarcely outdoes Major or Bower.

Harry's slight sketch of Wallace as a 'child' of eighteen prepares us for the description of his hero in his prime by 'clerks, knights, and heralds' of France, which, he says, Blair set down 'in Wallace' book.'

'Wallace' stature, in largeness and in height,
Was judged thus, by such as saw him right
Both in his armour dight and in undress:
Nine quarters large he was in length—no less;
Third part his length in shoulders broad was he,
Right seemly, strong, and handsome for to see;
His limbs were great, with stalwart pace and sound;
His brows were hard, his arms were great and round;
His hands right like a palmer's did appear,
Of manly make, with nails both great and clear;
Proportioned long and fair was his visage;
Right grave of speech, and able in courage;
Broad breast and high, with sturdy neck and great,
Lips round, his nose square and proportionate;
Brown wavy hair, on brows and eyebrows light,
Eyes clear and piercing, like to diamonds bright.
On the left side was seen below the chin,
By hurt, a wen; his colour was sanguIne.
Wounds, too, he had in many a diverse place,
But fair and well preserved was aye his face.
Of riches for himself he kept no thing;
Gave as he won, like Alexander the King.
In time of peace, meek as a maid was he;
Where war approached, the right Hector was he.
To Scots men ever credence great he gave;
Known enemies could never him deceive.
These qualities of his were known in France,
Where people held him in good remembrance.'

It is futile to dispute over fractional details. Let the most exacting historical critic array the indisputable facts of Wallace's birth, breeding, and career, and frame upon these his conception of the figure of the man. It is impossible that there should be any substantial difference between such a picture and the picture exhibited by Harry. Fordun states that Wallace was 'wondrously brave and bold, of goodly mien, and boundless liberality'; and that he ruled with an iron hand of discipline. Major declines to commit himself to Wallace's alleged feats of strength; yet he does not scruple to affirm that 'two or even three Englishmen were scarce able to make stand against him, such was his bodily strength, such also the quickness of his dexterity, and his indomitable courage,' while 'there was no extreme of cold or heat, or hunger or of thirst, that he could not bear.' And Bower's description bears out fully the account given by Harry. The objector is not to be envied in his task of explaining how Wallace fought in the thickest of the battle, how he defended the rear against mailed horsemen on barbed chargers, and how he stood at the head of the Scots in the battle of Stirling Bridge.

But, as Burton justly remarks, 'Wallace's achievements demanded qualities of a higher order.' Now Burton's cautious reticence gives especial emphasis to his decided affirmation that Wallace 'was a man of vast political and military genius.' 'As a soldier,' the circumspect Burton freely admits, 'Wallace was one of those marvellously gifted men, arising at long intervals, who can see through the military superstitions of the day, and organise power out of those elements which the pedantic soldier rejects as rubbish.' Yes, Wallace had to create, and then to train; not merely to organise and marshal and order in the field. Wallace started with the sole equipment of his single sword. With his small and inexperienced body of comrades, without mailed barons or mailed chargers, he was driven by sheer necessity to devise means of conserving his force and at the same time making it as effective as possible in offence. At Stirling, his masterly selection of the ground practically decided the issue; the rash confidence of Cressingham only rendered the victory more complete. At Falkirk, as Burton points out, 'he showed even more of the tactician in the disposal of his troops where they were compelled to fight'—tactics amply vindicated on many a modern battlefield. 'The arrangement, save that it was circular instead of rectangular, was precisely the same as the "square to receive cavalry" which has baffled and beaten back so many a brilliant army in later days.' But for the defection of the cavalry, comparatively weak as they were, Falkirk might have been Stirling Bridge. These tactics, however, admirable as they are universally, acknowledged to have been, and even original, were no doubt developed by painful experience in the guerrilla period. And, on the other hand, it is to be remembered that, while Scotland had had no experience of war for more than a century, Wallace was not only crippled by the operation of the feudal allegiance, but had for his opponents the ablest generals and the most seasoned warriors of the age.

On the moral side of war, Wallace must indeed have been a sanguinary barbarian if any apology for his seventies be due to the murderers of his wife, to the conqueror that made Berwick swim in blood, to the insolent tramplers upon the common human feelings of his countrymen, or to the juggling reivers of the independence of his country. We decline to apologise for his alleged private reprisals if you madden a man with open injustice and intolerable oppression, if you gaily lacerate his soul in his physical helplessness, it is you yourself that invite him to have recourse to the primal code of retaliation. If Wallace, as Harry says, never spared any Englishman 'that able was to war,' it was an intelligible principle in the dire circumstances of the time; and he is not known to have deprecated the application of the principle to himself. If he imagined that there had come to him an admonition, divine and imperative, to slay and spare not, we decline to censure him because he hewed his enemies in pieces before the Lord.

Yet such deliberate and inexorable rigour of policy is a wholly different matter from gratuitous cruelty. Wallace did not war on women, priests, or other 'weak folk.' It is not the strong man that is a cruel man. True, the English historians brand him as brigand, cutthroat, man of Belial, and so forth—and ascribe to him inhuman atrocities. This indeed is by no means unnatural for writers of the cloister, starting from Wallace's outlawry and his guerrilla warfare, and cherishing a full share of the virulent international enmity. But while no doubt very rough deeds were done in those days on both sides, 'Herodian cruelties' are but the stock allegations of dislike at this period; and they are hurled from both sides indiscriminately. Major expressly admits that 'towards all unwarlike persons, such as women and children, towards all who claimed his mercy, he showed himself humane,' though 'the proud and all who offered resistance he knew well how to curb.' The strong impression remains that Wallace never, at any rate never without some overpowering constraint, either did or permitted mere cruelty to any person. Hemingburgh's account of the episode at Hexham speaks volumes in his favour.

The regrettable inadequacy of historical criticism of Harry's poem prevents us, in the meantime, from illustrating the minor military qualities of Wallace. But, admitted that he was 'a man of vast military genius,' there is little necessity for detailed remarks on his care and consideration for his men; on his men's confidence in him and affection for him; on his sleepless vigilance, his high courage, his cool daring, his masterful rule, his resolute tenacity and endurance, his keen sense of honour, his singular unselfishness, his lofty magnanimity. Undoubtedly he did not lack that 'bit of the devil in him,' without which, according to Sir Charles Napier, 'no man can command.' Nothing in all Harry's panorama is more nobly touching, or more illuminative, than the fidelity of the men that stood closest to Wallace. Is it not true, though Harry says it, that, when Steven of Ireland and Kerly rejoined their lost leader in the Tor Wood after the annihilation of Elcho Park, 'for perfect joy they wept with all their ecn'? Is not the lament of Wallace over the dead body of Sir John the Graham on the field of Falkirk the true, as well as the supreme, expression of the profound affection and confidence that united the goodly fellowship of these tried comrades and dauntless men?

Burton, as we have seen, also acknowledges freely that Wallace was 'a man of vast political genius.' The particulars are most limited, and yet they are ample to ground a large inference. It will be sufficient to recall his endeavours, in the midst of warlike activity, to resuscitate industry and commerce, to reorganise the civil order, to secure the aid of France and Rome, to minimise the friction with the barons, and to observe and to enforce deference to constitutional principle. It is a striking testimony to his greatness of mind that he was absolutely destitute of ambition, as ambition is ordinarily understood. Emphatically he was a man that 'cared not to be great, But as he saved or served the State.'

Even at the height of his power and popularity, he does not seem to have had the faintest impulse to seize the crown, or indeed to seize anything, for himself. Harry tells an extraordinary story, with a definiteness that commands attention, how he took the crown for one day, on Northallerton Moor, expressly and solely and most reluctantly 'to get battle.' Whether he could have taken the crown and held it—if he had so wished—need not tempt speculation. It is a singularly bright leaf in Wallace's laurels that there remains no shadow of evidence of any inclination on his part to swerve from the straight course of pure and unselfish patriotism.

'Wallace,' says Major, 'whom the common people, with some of the nobles, followed gladly, had a lofty spirit; and born, as he was, of no illustrious house, he yet proved himself a better ruler in the simple armour of his integrity than any of those nobles would have been.' And again: 'Wise and prudent he was, and marked throughout his life by a loftiness of aim which gives him a place, in my opinion, second to none in his day and generation.'

But beyond and above the exceptional tribute of 'vast political and military genius '—a tribute doubly ample for any one man in any century of a nation's history—it is the unique glory of Wallace that he was the one man of his time that dared to champion the independence of his country. More than that, though he died a cruel and shameful death amidst the exultant insults of his country's foes in the capital city of the enemy, he yet died victorious. He had kept alight the torch of Scottish freedom. He, a man of the people, had taught the recreant nobles that resistance to the invader was not hopeless, although those that took the torch immediately from his hand failed to carry it on; and the light was preserved by the commonalty till the torch was at length grasped by Bruce. Wallace, in fact, had made the ascendency of Bruce possible--a possibility converted into a certainty by the death of Edward I. Lord Rosebery has justly pointed to the attitude of Edward towards him in 1304, as 'the greatest proof of Wallace's eminence and power.' The true Deliverer of Scotland was Sir William Wallace.

The prime consideration is very finely singled out and expressed by Lord Rosebery, in the address he delivered at the Stirling Celebration in 1897—

'There are junctures in the affairs of men when what is wanted is a Man—not treasures, not fleets, not legions, but a Man—the man of the moment, the man of the occasion, the man of Destiny, whose spirit attracts and unites and inspires, whose capacity is congenial to the crisis, whose powers are equal to the convulsion—the child and the outcome of the storm. . . . We recognise in Wallace one of these men—a man of Fate given to Scotland in the storms of the thirteenth century. It is that fact, the fact of his destiny and his fatefulness, that succeeding generations have instinctively recognised.'

The instinct of the Scottish nation is thoroughly sound. Though at one time nourished by Harry's poem, it is rooted in the rock of historical fact. And, despite the sneers of the inconsiderate, it is a great imperial influence. Who will assert that the empire has suffered from the intense passion of freedom that Scotsmen associate with the name of Wallace? Is it not the obvious fact that the free national feeling by transmutation swells the imperial flame? If it is fundamentally due to Wallace's heroic heart and mind that the national spirit of freedom saved Scotland from union with England, on any terms less dignified than the footing of independence, then the results of his noble struggle entitle him to a foremost place among the great men that have established the foundations of the British Empire. One sovereign at least of England as well as of Scotland acknowledged - and handsomely acknowledged -'the good and honourable service done of old by William Wallace for the defence of that our kingdom.' Wallace made Scotland great; and, as Lord Rosebery proudly and justly claimed, 'if Scotland were not great, the Empire of all the Britains would not stand where it does.' In the work of imperial expansion, consolidation, and administration, Scotsmen have done, and are doing, at least their fair share; but that share would have been indefinitely deferred, and indefinitely marred, but for the uncurbed passion of freedom pervading their nature. And to Scotsmen, in all the generations, Freedom will ever be nobly typified in the immortal name of SIR WILLIAM WALLACE.


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