William Wallace (c1270-1350):
"The first two books I ever read in private, and which gave me more pleasure than any two books I ever read again, were, the life of Hannibal and the history of Sir William Wallace. . . . the story of Wallace poured a Scot[t]ish prejudice in my veins which will boil along there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest."
~ Robert Burns 1
The heroics and exploits of Scotland's greatest patriot were first dramatized around 1477 by the wandering minstrel Blind Harry in his lengthy epic, The Acts and Deeds of Sir William Wallace, Knight of Elderslie (or, Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campion Schir William Wallace). Harry's poem was one of the first books printed in Scotland, coming to public attention in 1508 through printing house Chepman and Myllar, and has remained one of Scotland's all-time most popular works of literature. In 1722, Wallace was translated and adapted for a contemporary audience by the poet William Hamilton of Gilbertfield - this more accessible version made it the most commonly-owned book in Scotland after the Bible. While other Scottish writers, such as Sir Walter Scott and Jane Porter, continued to sing Wallace's praises in fiction, he did not appear to a global audience until 1995, when Mel Gibson's movie Braveheart swept both the box office and the Academy Awards. The screenplay was based on Blind Harry's tale, although it took even more artistic liberties with the story than the minstrel himself did.
The historical William Wallace came from a land-owning family in the Ayrshire village of Ellerslie, but his activities before 1297 are completely undocumented. All earlier information comes from Blind Harry's account, which was written a century and three- quarters after Wallace's death. Wallace was said to have been under the protection of his uncle, Ronald Crawford, Sheriff of Ayrshire, as a youth. Local Ayrshire legend tells a tale about Wallace fishing in the River Irvine when he was confronted by a group of six English soldiers who demanded his catch. Wallace offered half of his catch in good humour, but the ringleader of the group, infuriated at being spoken to in such a familiar manner, lunged with his sword. Wallace floored the assailant with his fishing rod and swiped the sword from his hand. The other five soldiers were killed in the ensuing brawl. A warrant was issued for Wallace's arrest, and he left his uncle's home a fugitive. The city of Dundee also claims that Scotland's hero began his exploits there: a plague at St. Giles Cathedral commemorates the origin of Wallace's liberation movement, begun when he killed the son of the English governor in retaliation for bullying his family.
Another legend speaks of Wallace's larder, a tomb of English soldiers who met their end in an event that supposedly took place at Ardrossan Castle on the west coast of Ayrshire. The castle had fallen to Edward I's invading army under the reign of John Balliol at the start of the First War of Scottish Independence (1296), and English troops garrisoned themselves within its walls. Wallace and his men set fire to a building situated just outside of the castle wall; the Englishmen fell victim to the ploy as they ran out from the drawbridge to investigate the fire, only to find death awaiting. The bodies of those both dead and dying were thrown into the vault beneath the castle; the garrison's foodstuffs were then buried with them and all were left to rot. A ring engraved with the letter "W" was excavated at the site in 1829, thought by researchers to be Wallace's mark.
Wallace legends abound throughout Ayrshire and the surrounding country, but the historical Wallace entered records in May 1297 when he killed William Heselrig, the English Sheriff of Lanark. (Blind Harry asserted that this was to avenge the death of his wife, Marion Braidfute of Lamington, although there is no evidence for her ever having existed.). Thrust suddenly into the forefront of a resistance movement, Wallace's ranks swelled as he and his growing number of supporters expelled English forces in victories at Loudon Hill, Ayr, and Scone. By August his forces had grown sufficiently powerful, and he left his base in the Selkirk forest to join Andrew de Moray, liberator of Moray and leader of the northern revolts, to await the arrival of the English Army in Stirling.
By the summer of 1297, Edward had little authority over Scotland; of the castles north of the River Forth, only Dundee remained under English control. He could only re-impose his rule with a full-scale invasion, taking decisive action against Wallace and Moray. John de Warenne, 7th Earl of Surrey and King's lieutenant in Scotland, mustered an army with General Hugh de Cressingham and marched to Stirling in September.
On 11 September 1297, Surrey sent the vanguard of his army across the narrow old bridge by the castle; the Scottish army struck while its opponent was still isolated from the bulk of the forces. Surrey's army was torn apart as it filtered across the bridge from the southern bank of the River Forth. The English soon fled, but not before one hundred knights and five thousand infantrymen (about forty percent of their forces) were lost, including General Cressingham, whose skin Wallace used to make a baldrick for his sword. 2 While Scottish casualties were unrecorded since the army was comprised of historically nameless infantry soldiers, historians estimate that their losses were comparatively light. Only Andrew Moray, who died in November from wounds received during the battle, was recorded.
Upon Wallace's return from battle, he was knighted and named Guardian of Scotland and Leader of its Armies. During the six months that followed, Wallace led a raid into northern England to demonstrate that Scotland too could be formidable. Edward was infuriated but not intimidated. He concluded a truce with Philip the Fair of France, against whom he was campaigning in Flanders, and returned to England with his troops to prepare for a second invasion of Scotland. The march north began in July 1298, with two thousand horsemen and twelve thousand infantrymen. Wallace employed a scorched-earth policy as he baited the English further into the barren and hostile territory; by the time Edward's army reached central Scotland, it was close to starvation and demoralization.
Yet as Edward was preparing to withdraw, he learned that Wallace's army had taken position in the Callendar wood near Falkirk, ready to pursue the English as they fled. He pounced upon this opportunity to launch a surprise initiative and engage the Scots in the forest.
The Scots army was mostly composed of spearmen, arranged in four armoured hedgehog-like schiltrons, a formation of soldiers wielding outward-pointed pikes at various heights to ward off cavalry attacks. Gaps in the formations were filled by archers armed with longbows, while a troop of knights provided by Lord Comyns protected the rear. As the schiltrons braced themselves for the impact of the disorganized English cavalry, the traitorous Comyns ordered his troops to withdraw, leaving the archers and pikemen vulnerable. As the English troops surrounded the Scots, the schiltrons were isolated into a permanent defensive position - and although they withstood the shock of the infantry, the battle was lost as soon as the archers began launching their arrows.
The survivors escaped as best they could - Wallace himself fled to the nearby forest of Torwood, where his pursuers could not easily follow. It is said that of the six thousand Scottish forces at the Battle of Falkirk, a third were killed and a third deserted. The English infantry suffered about two thousand casualties, a testament to the fierceness of the schiltrons that held out until the dire end.
The loss at Falkirk permanently damaged Wallace's military reputation, and some of his most loyal supporters deserted him. He resigned his post as Guardian to Robert Bruce, earl of Carrick, and John Comyn of Badenoch. That fall, he left Scotland with William Crawford and a small crew to plead for assistance in the struggle for independence from Philip IV of France. (This claim is substantiated by a surviving letter from King Philip, dated 7 November 1300, to his envoys in Rome suggesting that they assist Sir William.)
Wallace and his crew returned to Scotland in 1303, slipping in under the cover of darkness to William Crawford's farm near Elcho Wood. The English had heard rumors that Wallace would be appearing in the area, and moved in on the farm. A chase ensured, and the men managed to escape after Wallace killed the suspected informant in order to divert the pursuers from the trail. Wallace continued to evade capture until 5 August 1305, when John de Menteith, a Scottish knight loyal to King Edward, turned him over to English soldiers at Robroyston near Glasgow.
Wallace was transported to Westminster Hall, where he was tried for treason and murder. A garland of oak leaves was placed on his head to crown him the king of outlaws. He responded to the charge by asserting that his king was the absent John Balloil, and declared, "I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject."
On 23 August, he was removed from Westminster Hall, stripped naked, and tied by his heels to the back of a horse that dragged him through the streets to the Elms at Smithfield. There he was executed in the most brutal of medieval torture methods: he was hanged, drawn, and quartered - strangled by hanging until near death, then cut down, castrated, and eviscerated. His genitals and bowels were burnt before his eyes; he was then beheaded, and his body was cut into four pieces. His preserved head was placed on a pike atop London Bridge, while each of his limbs was displayed in Newcastle upon Tweed, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Stirling, and Aberdeen.
In September 1997, on the seven hundredth anniversary of Wallace's victory at Stirling Bridge, the people of Scotland voted through referendum to create the Scottish Parliament.Visit the National Wallace Monument Website
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