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William Wallace

Sir William Wallace (c. 1270August 23, 1305) was a Scottish patriot who led his country against the English (Norman) occupation of Scotland and King Edward I of England during parts of the Wars of Scottish Independence.

This in commemorates William Wallace.
This statue in Aberdeen commemorates William Wallace.

Popular opinion often sees Wallace as 'one of the common people', in contrast to his fellow-countryman, Robert the Bruce (Robert I of Scotland), who came from noble stock. Wallace's family descended from Richard Wallace (Richard the Welshman), a landowner under an early member of the Stewart family (which would later become a royal line in its own right).

Contemporary sources for information about Wallace's life are limited, and a significant amount that has been written about him is based on the account of Blind Harry in the late-15th Century romance "The Wallace", written around 1470, roughly two centuries after Wallace's birth, "The Wallace" is at best a problematic source.

Wallace was probably born around 1270, which would place him in his mid thirties during his most famous years between 1297 and 1305. Some dispute exists over the birthplace of Wallace. This is generally believed to be Elderslie, near Paisley in Renfrewshire. Recently it has been claimed that it was actually Ellerslie near Kilmarnock in Ayrshire. Certainly, confusion between the two places could easily have occurred in old documents, as spelling did not become standardised until more recent times. In support of Ellerslie, it has been argued that his father came from Riccarton, Ayrshire and his mother from Loudoun, Ayrshire. On top of this, some of Wallace's earliest actions took place in Ayrshire. In support of Elderslie, it has been argued that Ellerslie, a former mining village, is only known from the 19th century, but Elderslie is known from much earlier. His first action was at Lanark, which is not particularly near either Elderslie or Ellerslie, and he then moved into Ayrshire to link up at Irvine with some Scots nobles who were fighting the English.

There are no contemporary sources for information about Wallace's early life. It seems certain he was the son of Sir Malcolm Wallace of Riccarton, and that he had two brothers: Malcolm and John.

This plaque stands near the site of Wallace's execution.
This plaque stands near the site of Wallace's execution.

Wallace received his education from two uncles who had become priests, and therefore he became well-educated by the standards of the time, knowing both French and Latin. Blind Harry makes no mention of his ever having left the country, or having any military experience before 1297. A record from August, 1296 makes reference to 'a thief, one William le Waleys' in Perth, but this may not be him.

The 1995 motion picture Braveheart offers a fictionalized account of William Wallace's life. The "Braveheart" article includes more information on the factual inaccuracies of that movie.


Scotland in Wallace's time

At the time of Wallace's birth, King Alexander III had reigned for over twenty years. His rule had seen a period of peace and economic stability, and he had successfully fended off continuing English claims to suzerainty. In 1286, Alexander died after riding off a cliff during a fierce storm; none of his children survived him. The Scottish lords declared Alexander's 4 year-old granddaughter, Margaret (called 'the Maid of Norway'), Queen. Due to her age, they set up an interim government to administer Scotland until she came of age. King Edward took advantage of the potential instability by arranging the Treaty of Birgham with the lords, betrothing Margaret to his son, Edward, on the understanding that Scotland would preserve its status as a separate nation. But Margaret fell ill and died at only 8 years old (1290) on her way from her native Norway to Scotland. Thirteen claimants to the Scottish throne came forward almost immediately.

Contrary to popular belief, John Balliol had a right to the throne. However, the Scots deemed it desirable to have an independent arbitrator to determine the issue -- in order to avoid accusations of bias. Foolishly, the Scots invited King Edward I of England to decide the royal succession. Instead of coming as an independent arbitrator, he arrived at the Anglo-Scottish border with a large army and announced that he had come as an overlord to solve a dispute in a vassal state, forcing each potential king to pay homage to him. After hearing every claim, Edward in 1292 picked Balliol to reign over what he described as "the vassal state of Scotland". In March of 1296, Balliol renounced his homage to Edward, and by the end of the month Edward had stormed Berwick-upon-Tweed, sacking the then Scottish border town with much bloodshed. He slaughtered almost everyone who resided there, even if they fled to the churches. The Pope at this time kept his court in Edwards dominions in Gascony, and could not chastise him for this sacreligious conduct. In April, he defeated the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar (1296) in Lothian, and by July he had forced Balliol to abdicate at Kincardine Castle . Edward went to Berwick in August to receive formal homage from some 2,000 Scottish nobles (see Ragman Roll ), having previously removed the Stone of Destiny from Scone Palace, the stone on which all of the Kings of Scots had been crowned. The stone, to this day, forms the seat of the throne on which English monarchs have been crowned. Scotland now effectively lay under English rule.

Wallace's exploits begin

The following year, 1297, saw the start of Wallace's rise to prominence. According to local Ayrshire legend, two English soldiers challenged Wallace over fish he had caught. The argument escalated into a full-scale fight, with the result that Wallace killed the soldiers. The authorities issued a warrant for his arrest shortly thereafter. Whatever the truth of this story, it appears that Wallace had a long-standing hatred of the English, partially based on his father and elder brother's death at their hands in 1291. He definitely enters history when he killed the English Sheriff of Lanark, this was not an isolated incident but part of a generalised Scottish rising, although according to later legend this was to avenge the killing of his wife. He further avenged his father's death by winning battles at Loudoun Hill (near Darvel, Ayrshire) and Ayr. May found him fighting alongside Sir William Douglas in Scone, routing the English justiciar, William de Ormesby . Supporters of the growing popular revolt suffered a major blow when Scottish nobles agreed to terms with the English at Irvine in July, and in August, Wallace left his base in Selkirk Forest to join Andrew de Moray's army at Stirling. Moray had started another rising, and their forces combined at Stirling, where they prepared to meet the English in battle.

The Battle of Stirling Bridge

September 11, 1297, saw a decisive victory for Wallace and the Scots at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Although vastly outnumbered, the Scottish forces led by Andrew de Moray (a more prominent noble, being a first son) and with Wallace as their captain, routed the English army. The Earl of Surrey's professional army of 300 cavalry and 10,000 infantry met disaster as they crossed over to the north side of the river. The narrowness of the bridge prevented many soldiers from crossing together (possibly as few as three men abreast), so while the English soldiers crossed, the Scots held back until half of them had passed and then killed the English as quickly as they could cross. English soldiers started to retreat as others pushed forward, and under the overwhelming weight, the bridge collapsed and many English soldiers drowned. Unbeknownst to the now chaotic English army, part of the Scots army had forded further up the river. With the English army split on either side of the river, the two Scots forces pressed both halves of the English army towards the river. The Scots won an overwhelming victory and hugely boosted the confidence of their army. Hugh Cressingham , Edward's treasurer in Scotland, died in the fighting.

Following the victories, Wallace became a knight and gained appointment as Guardian of Scotland in March 1298. But de Moray had died of his wounds three months after the Battle of Stirling. Their partnership had proved successful, but Wallace was now on his own, with bigger battles still to face.

The Battle of Falkirk

A year later the military tables turned at the Battle of Falkirk. On June 25, 1298, the English had invaded Scotland at Roxburgh. They plundered Lothian and regained some castles, but had failed to bring Wallace to combat. The Scots had adopted a 'scorched-earth' policy, and English suppliers' mistakes had left morale and food low, but Edward's search for Wallace would end at Falkirk.

Wallace had arranged his spearmen in four 'schiltrons' – circular, hedgehog formations surrounded by a defensive wall of wooden stakes. The English gained the upper hand, however, attacking first with cavalry, and wreaking havoc through the Scottish archers. The Scottish knights fled, and Edward's men began to attack the schiltrons. It remains unclear whether the infantry throwing bolts, arrows and stones at the spearmen proved the deciding factor, or a cavalry attack from the rear.

Either way, gaps in the schiltrons soon appeared, and the English exploited these to crush the remaining resistance. The Scots lost many men, but Wallace escaped, though his pride and military reputation suffered badly.

By September, 1298, Wallace had decided to resign his guardianship in favour of Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick, and John Comyn of Badenoch, ex-King John Balliol's brother-in-law. Bruce became reconciled with King Edward in 1302, while Wallace spurned such moves towards peace. He spent some time in France on a presumed diplomatic mission.

Wallace's capture and execution

Sir William contrived to evade capture by the English until August 5, 1305, when Sir John de Menteith, a Scottish knight loyal to Edward, captured him near Glasgow. After a show trial, the English authorities had him executed on August 23, 1305, at Smithfield, London in the traditional manner for a traitor. He was hanged, then drawn and quartered, and his head placed on a spike on London Bridge. The English government displayed his limbs, separately, in Newcastle, Berwick, Edinburgh, and Perth.

The plaque in the photograph above stands in a wall of St Bartholomew's Hospital near the site of Wallace's execution at Smithfield. Scottish patriots and other interested people frequently visit the site, and flowers often appear there.

A sword which supposedly belonged to Wallace was held for many years in Dumbarton Castle , and is now in the Wallace National Monument near Stirling. However examination of the sword by the experts has concluded that its design belongs to a period a few centuries after Wallace.

Legacy and modern portrayal

William Wallace's story has been portrayed in the 1995 film Braveheart, which won 5 Academy Awards. The video game Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings has a tutorial campaign based on the exploits of Wallace, which includes the battles of Stirling Bridge and Falkirk as the climax of the campaign. The computer game Medieval Total War also provides the battle of Stirling Bridge as one of its historical scenarios.

In 2005, the 700th anniversary since Wallace's execution, his sword becomes the centerpiece of an exhibition in New York during the celebrations of Tartan Week. This marks the first time the 6-pound weapon leaves Scotland.

Sources and further reading

  • Fisher, Andrew. William Wallace. Birlinn: 2002. ISBN 0859765571.
  • MacKay, James A. William Wallace: Brave Heart. Mainstream: 1996. ISBN 185158823X.
  • Ross, David R. On the Trail of William Wallace. Luath: 1999. ISBN 0946487472.
  • Wallace, Margaret. William Wallace: Champion of Scotland. Goblinshead: 1999. ISBN 1899874194.

External Links

  • March 30th 2005 'Braveheart' Sword Leaves Scotland for first time in 700 years [1]

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