c.1272-76 – 1305
Scottish patriot and freedom fighterby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Scottish folklore is full of tales of William Wallace, the national hero of Scotland. Often, the true history must be separated from the legend. Wallace was born the son of minor gentry somewhere in southwestern Scotland; the exact location is not known. As a child, Wallace likely learned how to handle weapons like the claymore, a huge two-handed broadsword that was to become his preferred armament.
After the abrupt extinction of the direct royal line in Scotland, a dispute arose over who the successor to the throne would be. Alexander III had gained the Scottish throne in 1249, at the age of eight years old. Two years later he was wed to the daughter of Henry III of England. Alexander III reigned nearly 40 years, outliving his children. His grand-daughter, Margaret, the infant daughter of the King of Norway, had been promised to the son of Edward I of England. At the death of Alexander in 1286, the child Margaret was briefly given the Scottish throne but she died at only seven years old while crossing from Norway to Scotland. Since she had been engaged to the son of Edward I, this gave Edward (also known as Longshanks) a rational to take control of Scotland. Edward had conquered Wales in 1284, and was now eager to expand his kingdom once again.
To prevent a civil war between the two foremost claimants to the Scottish throne, John Balliol and Robert Bruce, grandfather of the future king, the major nobles of the realm called upon Edward I to resolve the dispute. Edward agreed, and he decided in favor of Balliol. However, he had other, more sinister plans for Scotland. In exchange for the establishment of Balliol as king, Edward made Balliol his puppet and garrisoned many Scottish fortresses with English troops.
In 1295, France and Scotland signed the "Auld Alliance", one of the world's oldest mutual defence treaties, and King John Balliol had renounced his fealty to Edward I. It was in this state with Longshanks attempting to rule Scotland through Balliol that William Wallace entered the scene.
There are differing opinions on how Wallace’s exploits began. Blind Harry, a fifteenth-century minstrel who wrote a 12-volume poetical work on the Scottish hero, claims that a party of English soldiers demanded Wallace’s catch of fish. He refused, and Wallace, a giant standing about seven feet, killed or disabled all the soldiers. However, it has been proved that a good part of Harry’s work is fictional. Whatever the cause, William was now a hunted outlaw. After many individual exploits against the English, Wallace was joined by a few friends. Family ties in Scotland, no matter how distant, were very strong. William’s extended family would have made a large network of informers. Now Wallace had a small yet active force that would give the English a headache.
In late 1296, Wallace fell in love with Marion Bradfute of Lanark. It is believed that they had an illegitimate daughter. On one occasion, Wallace narrowly escaped from the English while visiting Lanark. Marion aided in his flight, and, in revenge, Sir John Hazelrig, English governor of Lanark, cruelly murdered Marion. Wallace was maddened by this act of brutality. One night in May of 1297, Wallace and his band snuck into Lanark and unleashed their vengeance on the English. All in all, over 240 English were killed, with the notable exception of the women, children, and priests. Harry informs us that Wallace never killed the innocent or the clergy.
The news of the massacre at Lanark quickly spread throughout Scotland. Scots flocked to Wallace’s banner, and soon he was commanding an army of three thousand. Wallace defeated the English in several battles. At this time the major nobles of Scotland were vacillating between Wallace’s cause and the English side. These lukewarm nobles would cause the downfall of Wallace’s rebellion and Wallace himself.
Wallace moved northeast to capture Perth. Most of the Highlands were under Scottish control, thanks to the efforts of a Highland noble named Andrew Moray, with the exception of the fortresses of Dundee and Stirling. Wallace now began the siege of the former castle. During the siege, Wallace received news that an English army was headed toward Stirling. Leaving a small force to continue the siege of Dundee, Wallace marched for Stirling. The Scots encamped north of Stirling Castle. Wallace had his men very well disciplined, rare for feudal levies like the troops Wallace was commanding. The English commander, John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, had defeated the earlier Scottish army with ease at Dunbar. This previous effortless victory may have caused him to underestimate the strength of his foe. Although the English outnumbered the Scots tremendously (estimates of the English force range from 15,000 to 50,000 infantry compared to the Scots’ 10,000), Wallace had positioned his men impeccably.
The Scots were on high ground above the bridge across the river Forth. The English finally advanced across the bridge on September 11, 1296. When a substantial but manageable English force had crossed, the Scots charged down the hill. Scottish spearmen secured the bridgehead to prevent more English from crossing. Most of the English troops on the Scottish side of the river were annihilated. About 6,000 English soldiers were killed, and the Scots suffered very few casualties. The battle proved that English heavy cavalry could be defeated. It also served to madden Edward.
Wallace was now virtually master of Scotland. All the nobles flocked to his standard, and the English were totally driven from Scotland within a month after the battle. Wallace led an army into the English border provinces of Northumberland and Cumbria. The Scots systematically and efficiently ravaged northern England and took all valuables back to Scotland. Coming back to Scotland, Wallace arranged a medieval version of the draft system, purged the Church of Scotland of all English clergy, and initiated a scorched-earth policy in the south. Edward was about to invade.
Edward led an army into Scotland in the middle of 1298. Quickly, the English began starving. Finally, they brought Wallace to bay. Wallace was forced to fight a pitched battle at Falkirk. With a foresight typical of all great tacticians, Wallace was able to position his army on advantageous terrain, despite the unanticipated night advance of the English. Wallace formed his men into four bodies, each with spearmen on the outside to combat the English infantry and cavalry. However, he could devise no defense against the English archers. A storm of arrows swept through the formations, followed immediately by an unstoppable infantry charge. The Scottish ranks broke and fled, and with them went all hope of permanently ousting the English. However, the English army was somewhat roughed up as well, and Edward was forced to return to England shortly after the battle.
Blind Harry says that Wallace took a trip to France after Falkirk, captured a pirate fleet, and then raised an army of a thousand exiled Scots to fight for France. This appears to be too farfetched to be believable, but Harry does recount a journey to Rome by the Scottish patriot that has more historical foundation. Pope Boniface had issued a bull rebuking Edward for his actions towards the Scots. No Vatican records show a visit by Wallace to the Pope, but papal support for the Scots renders it possible that Wallace did indeed visit the Holy See.
Three prominent nobles ruled Scotland effectively during Wallace’s presumptive absence. Even though Edward continued to make desultory forays into Scotland, he never achieved anything material, except for relocating Scotland's Coronation Stone (the "Stone of Destiny") to London's Westminster Abbey (but permantly returned in 1996). Finally, Edward gathered a massive host, strong enough to reduce all the castles in Scotland. The nobles steadily defected to Edward as he advanced, and in February 1304, Scotland capitulated. Edward was remarkably lenient toward all the leaders of the Scottish “rebellion”—except Wallace. A price was placed on his head and he was forced to hide in the marshes.
During Edward’s transformation of Scotland into an English province, Wallace remained on the run with a small band of followers, occasionally striking back at his pursuers. Sadly, treachery finally brought him down. Wallace was betrayed by one of his men, and he was captured by a former friend named John Menteith.
Wallace was conveyed to London by Menteith, where, as a pure formality, Edward held a trial. Wallace was summarily tried and convicted of numerous “crimes” against England, including treason, murder, robbery, and other felonies. Although Wallace was never permitted to speak at his trial, at one point he shouted that he never was a traitor, as Edward was not King of Scotland. Wallace was sentenced to the typical traitor’s punishment—hanging, drawing and quartering. The brutal execution included partial hanging, mutilation, and the removal of the internal organs one by one. The victim only died when the heart was ripped out. In this way, William Wallace, the one who had lit the flame of rebellion against tyranny, died. Scotland’s freedom was not to perish with him, for precisely seven months later Robert Bruce was crowned King of Scotland. In 1314, Bruce won total victory against the English at Bannockburn. Scotland was free.
According to the “Scotichronicon,” a period historical chronicle, “the Most High…had so blessed [Wallace’s] words and deeds with a certain heavenly gift…He was…most compassionate in comforting the sad,…who above all hunted down falsehood and deceit and detested treachery; for this reason the Lord was him, and with His help he was a man successful in him.” Throughout his campaigns and wanderings, Wallace always carried with him a Psalter, and, in his death throes at his execution, asked that the Psalms of David be held in front of him. In many ways, Wallace was like David. Both were hunted and harried by a powerful king, and both relied on God to be their support throughout their lives.
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