William Wallace

Born 1270 AD – Died 1305 AD

William Wallace

William_wallaceWilliam Wallace Lord Protector of Scotland, (c. 1270 –August, 23rd 1305) has been brought forth to the public imagination because of the success of the film Braveheart. But folks in Scotland have been reading about their national folk hero since they were children. The myth surrounding the man is as veiled as the dark ages that he belongs too, and how the seemingly son of a minor noble became the leader of a national rebellion is truly remarkable. His exploits culminated in the epic defeat of the English Army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in September 1297, and was eventually appointed Guardian of Scotland, a position he served until his final defeat at the Battle of Falkirk in July 1298. William Wallace met his ignominious end in August 1305,when he was captured near Glasgow, and handed over to King Edward I, the cruel King of England and Wallace’s main adversary throughout the rebellion Edward has come down to us as the “Hammer of the Scots”, a moniker not lost on William who was hanged, drawn, and quartered for high treason, thus ending his Brave uprising.

Instability of the Scottish Crown

On 19 March 19th, 1286, King Alexander III died leaving the throne of Scotland vacant, and a young William Wallace came into a world where the succession was in turmoil. The first heir to the throne was Alexander’s granddaughter, Margaret, but she died in Orkney on 26 September 1290 on her way to claim the throne. Being the only possible successor, and direct heir to the former King, this next tumultuous period became known as the “Great Cause”, as many noble Scottish clans laid claim to the throne. In perhaps a stroke of luck for King Edward I of England, who was always vying for the territory north of the now ancient wall of Hadrian, he was invited by the Scottish nobility to help choose a successor so that the kingdom would not fall into a civil war. Edward was quick to align himself with the clan of John Balliol, and supported his right to the crown in November 1292, at a great feudal court held in the castle at Berwick-upon-Tweed.

“I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject.”
Edward Knew John was a weak King, having earned the nickname “Toom Tabard” in Gaelic or “Empty Coat”. and thus further worked to Edward’s advantage when he proceeded to reverse the rulings of the Scottish Lords, and at one point he even summoned King John Balliol to stand before the English court forcing him to renounce his homage to the throne. Finally using this pretense for an invasion, in March 1296 Edward stormed Berwick-upon-Tweed, sacking the then-Scottish border town and then in April, the Scots were defeated at the Battle of Dunbar and Edward formal announced the abdication of John.

From humble origins to leader of a rebellion

Although the exact records of William’s early life are heard to know for certain, what is sure is that he was born into a Kingdom where the future of Scotland was very much in doubt. For centuries the Lowland Clans had gotten powerful t the expense of the Highlanders, who were perhaps the descendants of the ancient Pictish race of Scotland. It was in the highlands where William spent his youth hearing tales of his people and the exploits of his Celtic brethren. The occupying forces sent by Edward were cruel in these parts and this perhaps led to the first assassination known to have been carried out by Wallace , when he attacked and killed William de Heselrig, the English High Sheriff of Lanark, in May 1297. Some say this was a revenge killing for a violation meted upon Wallace’s then wife, but the historical record proves this was just the tipping point for a serious of rebellions that were just underneath the surface and broke simultaneously throughout Scotland at the dawn of the 14th century.

Whatever the case, Wallace became a hunted man, and he joined with William the Hardy, Lord of Douglas, to begin harassing the English troops in the Scottish countryside. They even carried out the raid of Scone, a symbolic town now for being the Ancient seat of Scotland, as the nation itself was often called or shown on maps as the “Kingdom of Scone” to the Romans. This success immediately galvanized the Scots, and another rebellion broke out with support of the Scottish nobles and Andrew Moray in the north.

English retaliation and the Battle of Sterling Bridge

Edward sent the English in force to Irvine, the site of Scotland’s 12th century Military Capital and former headquarters of the Lord High Constable of Scotland, Hugh de Morville where he defeated the Scottish militia that was still assembling, causing the remaining nobles to submit to Edward. But being more strategic, and understanding that they could not defeat a standing English Army just yet, Wallace and Moray were careful not to be involved in this skirmish, and continued their rebellions, amassing their forces in the Ettrick Forest as a base for raiding, and eventually attacked Wishart’s palace at Ancrum as a sign of retaliation to the English. It was perhaps in these seminal years as Wallace assumed more and more leadership, that he realized Scottish guerrilla tactics would be to his advantage against the better armed and more disciplined English troops. This culminated in the siege of Dundee in early September, where Wallace and Moray met and joined their forces in order to draw the English into a formal battle.

On 11 September 1297, an army jointly led by Wallace and Andrew Moray amassed outside of Sterling awaiting the English King in what was perhaps one of the greatest military confrontations of British history since the time of Boudicca.

Although vastly outnumbered, the Scottish army routed the English army using a combination of daring, medieval brute force, and perhaps the knowledge that this was potentially the last stand of an independant Scottish Kingdom. Although being depicted at ebbing at the battle in the film Braveheart, King Edward actually sent John de Warenne, the 6th Earl of Surrey, with a professional army of 3,000 cavalry 10,000 infantry to seize what he would consider the final remnants of the uprising. Ahead of the English troops lay a narrow ancient wooden bridge fording the River Sterling, and across that lay an army of Scotts all the while teasing the English troops into battle. The heavily armed English cavalry pushed the infantry ahead, seeing that the scots were just armed foot soldiers with their transition two handed Claymore swords.

But this Army met disaster as they crossed over to the north side of the river, as the narrowness of the bridge prevented many soldiers from crossing with as few as three able to at a time. In this sense the Scots now head the advantage, as their long two handed swords allowed them to quickly mow down these infantry as they crossed. The Scots even held back until half of the remaining infantry crossed the entire narrow, and then quickly set upon and slaughtered them them within the confines of the bridge. But William had still one more trick under his sleeve, and when the remaining infantry came to the rescue of those being slaughtered on the bridge, Willam’s forces assembled the Schiltron, an ancient fighting tactics made up of consecutive sharpened pokes aligned outwardly to stop any formation from crossing.

The Scots’ schiltron formations forced the infantry back into the advancing cavalry, which by now had seen the devastation and began crossing into the narrow bridge on horseback. At this point, one of Wallace’s men, infused with fury and covered in English blood, led a pivotal charge which caused some of the English soldiers to retreat as others pushed forward. Other Scots quickly met the melee at the face of the bridgehead where this Scottish were decimating troops in their disarray and this caused confusion and eventually a complete blockade on the bridge. The overwhelming weight began to pop the ancient timbers supporting the quickly flowing river, and, the bridge collapsed causing the majority of the English force to fall into the river. Those that did not down under the weight of their armor, were quickly piked by the Scots’s Schiltrons as they grasped for air. The meaning forces on the other side of the now blood stained river fled, and the Scots roared in triumph having achieved their first victory against an English standing army, and they continued to kill every last survivor of the battle.

Wallace himself was involved in the battle, and after the victory he dragged the body of Hugh Cressingham, Edward’s treasurer in Scotland, onto the field and had his skin flayed and cut into small pieces as tokens of the victory. Wallace took the largest strip of this flesh with a contemporary source, The Lanercost Chronicle recording that Wallace had “a broad strip taken from the head to the heel, to make therewith a baldrick for his sword”.

From Knighthood to his Final Stand at Falkir

Because of their success at Sterling, Moray and Wallace assumed the title of Guardians of the Kingdom of Scotland on behalf of King John Balliol. Moray who was severely wounded in the battle, died shortly afterwards sometime in late 1297, with the title being a fitting tribute to the first nobleman to support his comrade in arms Wallace.

Now solely in charge of the unified Scottish forces, in November 1297, Wallace led a large-scale raid into northern England, thoroughly devastating the English frontier towns within Northumberland and Cumberland. After these successful raids, more and more troops joined Wallace’s shadow army, and towards the end of the year Wallace was knighted at the ‘Kirk o’ the Forest’ or modern Selkrik, on a ceremony deep in the forest bastion, complete with ancient Scottish traditions and a mass of pipers reminiscent of the ancient highland traditions of their forbears.

But this success was not to be, and the following year in April 1298, when the spring thaw approached, Edward launched a second more deadly invasion of Scotland. Realizing the English had superior numbers and logistics, the Scots shadowed the English army, harassing and retreating when they could, and intending to avoid battle until shortages of supplies and money forced Edward to withdraw. Later that year In July, Edward retreated to Edinburgh for supplies, but he received intelligence that the Scots were encamped nearby at Falkirk, and he moved quickly to engage them in the pitched battle before his situation became more dire. It was not known who betrayed William’s forces, but many of the Scottish noblemen feared they would be at the end of a losing battle, and may have conspired against Wallace.

Nevertheless, Highland scouts alerted Wallace to the arrival of English forces, and Wallace quickly arranged his spearmen in four schiltrons , amassed in their traditional, circular hedgehog formations, making several defensive walls of wooden stakes in front of his army. But the ever clever Edward had his own trick up his sleeve, and being fresh off the Welsh campaign of the previous year, he employed Welsh long-bowmen, who swung strategic superiority in their favor after seeing what these troops had done to the armor of his own infantry forces. By now the Scots had amassed superior armor and weapons as well from the fallen English, but these were not match for the meter high arrows thrown into battle by the welsh forces, with devastating accuracy. Wallace tried to fight back with his won archers, but they were no match and then the English proceeded to attack with cavalry, and break them up as well. Seeing their chances diminishing, the Scottish knights under the command of the Scottish nobles withdrew, leaving only Wallace’s irregular forces in the schiltrons to hold the battle field. These were wackily taken upon by Edwards men, and though the Scots defended their ground ferociously, without their archers and heavy cavalry, gaps in the schiltrons soon appeared, and the English Knights rushed into these crushing the remaining resistance. On that battlefield the Scots lost many men, including John de Graham, one of Wallace’s most ardent supporters. Wallace only narrowly escaped, heavily wounded, by fleeing with the survivors into the depths of the forest.

Having lost his reputation with this devastating defeat, in September 1298, Wallace resigned as Guardian of Scotland in favor of Robert the Bruce the Earl of Carrick, who would become the future king, with some saying he may have been behind the betrayal of William at Falkirk, a plan he hatched perhaps to regain the throne. Wallace soon became a hunted man, yet he evaded capture by the English for seven years, but was finally captured on august 5th, 1305, when John de Menteith, a Scottish knight loyal to Edward, turned Wallace over to English soldiers at Robroyston near Glasgow.

Wallace must have known what Edward had in mind for him, and he was transported to London in chains. A trial ensued in Westminster Hall, where he was tried for treason and for atrocities against civilians in war, “sparing neither age nor sex, monk nor nun” as the contemporary sources attest. During the trial, the condemned Wallace was crowned with a garland of oak to suggest he was the king of outlaws, yet battered and bruised he responded to the treason charge, “I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject.” Wallace further testified that John Balliol was officially his king and was belligerent to the end.

What followed is surely one of the most horrible tortures that the crown had created in order to make an example of rebel leaders like Wallace, so that other rebellions might be quelled. On the 23rd of August 1305, Wallace was convicted of treason, and taken from the hall to the Tower of London. There he was then stripped naked and dragged through the city at the heels of a horse, until he reached the place of execution, still alive, but a broken and battered man. He was hanged multiple times until the point of death, until he was released, then still alive her was drawn. A torture melted out to special criminals where his entrails were slowly taken from his bowels and burnt in a pyre before him. Still alive, he was emasculated,and finally beheaded, with his body being cut into four parts to display across the kingdom. It was said his preserved head was dipped in tar and placed on a pike atop London Bridge where it stood for many years before falling apart, while his limbs were displayed, separately in Newcastle upon Tyne, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Stirling, and Perth.

This death sentence has come down to us as being “hanged, drawn and quartered”, and was the final pivotal moment in the film about Wallace’s life. Though he may not have uttered the words freedom as he lay dying before the English crowd as he did in the film Braveheart, the spirit that left Wallace that day resonates in Scotland to this day, where he is remembered in Sterling with a monument that reads “WALLACE, GREAT PATRIOT HERO! ILL REQUITED CHIEF!”

The opening lines of The Wallace

Our antecessowris that we suld of reide,
And hald in mynde thar nobille worthi deid,
We lat ourslide throu verray sleuthfulnes,
And castis us ever till uther besynes.

Till honour ennymyis is our haile entent,
It has beyne seyne in thir tymys bywent.
Our ald ennemys cummyn of Saxonys blud,
That nevyr yeit to Scotland wald do gud,
But ever on fors and contrar haile thar will,
Quhow gret kyndnes thar has beyne kyth thaim till.

It is weyle knawyne on mony divers syde,
How they haff wrocht in to thar mychty pryde,
To hald Scotland at undyr evermar,
Bot God abuff has maid thar mycht to par.
Yhit we suld thynk one our bearis befor,
Of that parablys as now I say no mor.
We reide of ane rycht famous of renowne,
Of worthi blude that ryngis in this regioune,
And hensfurth I will my proces hald,
Of Wilyham Wallas yhe haf hard beyne tald.

from “Acts and Deeds of the Illustrious and Valiant Champion Sir William Wallace”
by the fifteenth-century Scottish Poet, Blind Harry

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