William Wallace

Eight-foot statue of Wallace by Alexander Carrick near the entrance of Edinburgh Castle
Eight-foot statue of Wallace by Alexander Carrick near the entrance of Edinburgh Castle

Sir William Wallace (c.127023 August 1305) was a Scottish knight who led a resistance to the English occupation of Scotland during significant periods of the Wars of Scottish Independence. William was the inspiration for the historical novel The Acts and Deeds of Sir William Wallace, Knight of Elderslie written by the 15th century minstrel Blind Harry. This work is more of a novel than a biography and is responsible for much of the legend encompassing the history of William Wallace.




Tradition often describes Wallace as "a common person" in contrast to his countryman, Robert the Bruce, who came from the upper nobility. Wallace's family were minor nobles (gentry), descending from Richard Wallace the Welshman (the name Wallace means "Welsh"), a landowner under an early member of the House of Stuart, which later became the Royal House of Scotland. So in lineage Wallace was a Welshman.

While some suggest Wallace was born around 1272, the 16th century work History of William Wallace and Scottish Affairs claims 1276 as his year of birth.

Due to the lack of conclusive evidence, Wallace's birthdate and birthplace are disputed. Traditionally, the birthplace of William Wallace is claimed to be Elderslie, near Paisley in Renfrewshire; although it has been suggested that his birthplace was closer to Ellerslie, an alternative name for Riccarton, near Hurlford and Kilmarnock in Ayrshire. In support of the Ellerslie origins, some proposed that William's traditional father, Alan Wallace of Elderslie (known as Malcolm Wallace until recently when one rediscovered William Wallace's seal), a knight and vassal to James the Steward, actually came from Riccarton, Ayrshire, from nearby Loudoun. There are also strong family connections to Craigie Castle, southeast of Kilmarnock. Some of Wallace's earliest actions were in Ayrshire, and local tradition has the dispute with English soldiers over fish not in Lanark but west of Riccarton at a site known as the "Bickering Bush".

To the contrary, the Elderslie origins are defended with the arguments that Ellerslie is a former mining village known only from the 19th century, whereas Elderslie is known from earlier. Wallace's first action was at Lanark, which is near neither Elderslie nor Ellerslie, and afterward he moved into Ayrshire to join some Scottish nobles who were fighting the English at Irvine.

The 1999 rediscovery of William Wallace's seal further enshrouds Wallace's early history in mystery. While tradition claims Sir Malcolm Wallace of Elderslie as the father of three sons, Malcolm, John, and William Wallace, the seal identifies William as the son of Alan Wallace of Ayrshire, who appears in the Ragman Roll of 1296 as "crown tenant of Ayrshire". Dr. Fiona Watson in "A Report into Sir William Wallace's connections with Ayrshire", published in March 1999, reassesses the early life of William Wallace and concludes, "Sir William Wallace was a younger son of Alan Wallace, a crown tenant in Ayrshire". Historian Andrew Fisher, author of William Wallace (2002), writes, "If the Alan of the Ragman Roll was indeed the patriot's father, then the current argument in favour of an Ayrshire rather than a Renfrewshire origin for Wallace can be settled".

Wallace was allegedly educated in French and Latin by two uncles who had become priests. Blind Harry does not mention Wallace's departure from Scotland or that Wallace had combat experience prior to 1297. A record from August 1296 references "a thief, one William le Waleys" in Perth where his cousin William Crawford owned a farm nearby the present-day Elcho Castle.

Scotland in Wallace's time

William Wallace Monument
William Wallace Monument

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 falling from his horse; none of his children survived him. The Scottish lords declared Alexander's four year-old granddaughter, Margaret (called "the Maid of Norway"), Queen. Due to her age, the Scottish lords set up an interim government to administer Scotland until she came of age. King Edward I of England, 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 kingdom. But Margaret fell ill and died at only eight years old (1290) on her way from her native Norway to Scotland. A number of claimants to the Scottish throne came forward almost immediately.

With Scotland threatening to descend into a dynastic war, the leading men of the realm invited Edward's arbitration. Before the process could begin, he insisted that all of the contenders recognize him as Lord Paramount of Scotland. After some initial resistance, all, including John Balliol and Robert Bruce, the chief contenders, accepted this precondition. Finally, in early November 1292, at a great feudal court held in the castle at Berwick-upon-Tweed, judgment was given in favour of John Balliol, having the strongest claim in law. Formal announcement of the judgment was given by Edward on 17 November.

Although the outcome of the Great Cause had been both fair and legal, Edward proceeded to use the political concessions he had gained to undermine the independence of Scotland, and to make King John's position difficult. Balliol broke his promise and renounced his homage in March 1296, 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 every rebel who resided there, even if they fled to their homes. In April, the Scots were defeated at the Battle of Dunbar (1296) in Lothian, and by July Edward 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.

Wallace's exploits begin

Harry notes that Wallace's father was killed in a skirmish at Loudon Hill in 1291. This planted the seed of hatred for the foreign occupation of Scotland.

According to local Ayrshire legend, two English soldiers challenged Wallace in the Lanark marketplace regarding his catching of fish. The argument escalated into a brawl in which the two soldiers were killed. Blind Harry places this incident along the River Irvine with five soldiers being killed. The authorities issued a warrant for his arrest shortly thereafter. According to a plaque outside St. Paul's Cathedral in the City of Dundee however, William Wallace began his war for independence by killing the son of the English governor of Dundee after he had made a constant habit of bullying him and his family. This story perhaps has more weight because it is speculated that Wallace may have attended what is now the High School of Dundee, and spent some of his time growing up in the nearby village of Kilspindie. Blind Harry places this bullying incident in Lanark which led to a series of incidents described next.

Wallace is next credited with the death of Sir William Heselrig, the English Sheriff of Lanark, in May 1297, and dismemberment of his corpse, supposedly to avenge the death of Marion Braidfute of Lamington — the young maiden Wallace allegedly courted and married in Blind Harry's tale. Soon, he achieved victory in skirmishes at Loudoun Hill (near Darvel, Ayrshire) and Ayr; he also fought alongside Sir William Douglas in Scone, routing the English justiciar, William Ormesby. Supporters of the growing revolt suffered a major blow when Scottish nobles agreed to terms with the English at Irvine in July. In August, Wallace left Selkirk Forest with his followers to join Andrew Moray at Stirling. Moray began another uprising, and their forces combined at Stirling, where they prepared to meet the English in battle.

Wallace's activities between 1294 and 1296 are undocumented, but Harry states that Wallace was under the protection of his uncle Sir Ronald Crawford, Sheriff of Ayrshire. In the period from 1291 until 1297 Wallace was involved in several actions where the English invariably lost. Harry states that Wallace continually sought the protection of his uncle Crawford from the outrage of the English. It is said he sneaked into Lanark and killed the English Sheriff to avenge Marion Braidfute (his wife according to Blind Harry). Around 40 or so of his supporters went with him. Towns such as Aberdeen, Perth, Glasgow, Scone, Dundee, and all land north of the Forth were freed.

According to Harry, these hit and run tactics eventually led King Edward to address the problem by eliminating most of the Council of Barons in the Barns of Ayr (June 1297), with a similar event in Renfrewshire - although these events are unattested elsewhere. Sir Ronald Crawford was apparently first to be hanged, sending Wallace, who had arrived at the location late after running an errand for his uncle, into action and killing the entire English garrison in Ayr, locking the doors as the garrison slept and firing the structures. Wallace and his men retired to Selkirk Forest for safety. When word reached the Crawford family that Sir Ronald had been killed, Sir Ronald's son, William, joined Wallace in the forest.

As Wallace's ranks swelled, information obtained by John Graham prompted Wallace to move his force from Selkirk Forest to the Highlands. But on the way to the Highlands, Wallace met up with Andrew Moray at Stirling. From this point, the guerrilla war became open war.

The Battle of Stirling Bridge

On 11 September 1297, Wallace achieved victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Although vastly outnumbered, the Scottish forces led by Wallace and Andrew Moray (a more prominent noble, being a first son), 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.

A pivotal charge was led by Hamish Campbell, Wallace's long time companion and one of his captains. English soldiers started to retreat as others pushed forward, and under the overwhelming weight, the bridge collapsed and many English soldiers drowned. Harry claims that the bridge was rigged to collapse by the action of a man hidden beneath the bridge. The Scots won a significant victory which hugely boosted the confidence of their army. Hugh Cressingham, Edward's treasurer in Scotland, died in the fighting. Cressingham's skin was allegedly tanned and used to make trophy belts and sporrans by the Scots. Moray died of wounds suffered on the battlefield three months after the Battle of Stirling Bridge. William Crawford led 400 Scottish heavy cavalry to complete the action by running the English out of Scotland.

Upon his return from the Battle of Stirling Bridge, Wallace was knighted along with his second-in-command John Graham and his third-in-command William Crawford, possibly by Robert the Bruce, and Wallace was named "Guardian of Scotland and Leader of its armies", now Sir William Wallace.

In the six months following Stirling Bridge, Wallace led a force to York, at first ethnically cleansing the countryside, then laying siege to the City. His intent was to take the battle to English soil to demonstrate to Edward that Scotland also had the power to inflict the same sort of damage south of the border. Naturally, Edward was infuriated and refused to be intimidated. It is to be remembered that England had always been superior to Scotland in both military and economic might.

The Battle of Falkirk

A year later the military tables inevitably turned at the Battle of Falkirk. On 1 April 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 callously adopted a scorched-earth policy in their own country, 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 were pulled back by command, 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, although it is very likely that it was the arrows of Edward's bowmen.

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 military reputation suffered badly. John Graham was killed and William Crawford became Wallace's second. According to one account, during his flight Wallace fought and killed Brian de Jay, master of the English Templars in a thicket at Callendar.

By September 1298, Wallace had decided to resign as Guardian of Scotland in favour of Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick, and John Comyn of Badenoch, ex-King John Balliol's brother-in-law because of the discouraging lack of commitment and support from the Scottish nobility. Bruce became reconciled with King Edward in 1302, while Wallace spurned such moves towards peace.

According to Harry, Wallace left with William Crawford in late 1298 on a mission to the court of King Philip IV of France, Le Bel of France to plead the case for assistance in the Scottish struggle for independence. On their trip down the English coast, the small convoy ran into the infamous pirate Richard Longoville, also known as the Red Reiver for his red sails and ruthless raids. Hiding in the hold of the ship while Crawford and a small contingent of men sailed the ship, Wallace surprised the pirates as they boarded the ship after grappling them together. Longoville was captured and taken to Paris where the Scots convinced Phillip to grant amnesty so that Longoville could wreak havoc on English ships.

But after serving with the Scots Guard in France in two supposed military victories over the English as well as a side trip to Rome to plead for Scotland, in 1303 Wallace and his men returned to Scotland where they slipped in under the cover of darkness to recover on the farm of William Crawford, near Elcho Wood. Having heard rumors of Wallace's appearance in the area, the English moved in on the farm. A chase ensued and the band of men slipped away after being completely surrounded in Elcho Wood. It is at this point in the chase where Wallace took the life of one of his men that he suspected of hidden loyalty, in order to divert the English from the trail.

Wallace's capture and execution

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

Sir William evaded capture by the English until 5 August 1305, when Sir John de Menteith, a Scottish knight loyal to Edward, turned Wallace over to English soldiers at Robroyston, near Glasgow. Wallace was transported to London and tried for treason at Westminster Hall where he was crowned with a garland of oak to suggest that he was the king of outlaws. He responded to the charge, "I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject." The absent John Balliol was officially his king; however, Wallace was declared guilty.

On 23 August 1305, following the trial Wallace was removed from the courtroom, stripped naked and dragged at the heels of a horse to Smithfield Market. He was drawn and quartered: strangled by hanging but released near death, emasculated, eviscerated, beheaded, then divided into four parts (the four horrors) at the Elms in Smithfield. His head was placed on a pike atop London Bridge, which was later joined by the heads of his brother, John, and Sir Simon Fraser. His limbs were displayed, separately, in Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling, and Aberdeen.

The plaque in the photograph (left) 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 experts has concluded that its design belongs to a period a few centuries after Wallace.

Portrayal in fiction

An insignificant amount of comprehensive and historically accurate information was written about Wallace. Many stories, however, are based on the wandering 15th century minstrel Blind Harry's epic poem, "The Acts and Deeds of Sir William Wallace, Knight of Elderslie", written around 1470. Historians disagree with parts of Blind Harry's tale, or dismiss the entire composition. Although Blind Harry wrote from oral tradition describing events 170 years earlier, giving rise to alterations of fact, Harry's work still remains the most authoritative description of Wallace's exploits. Indeed, much of Harry's work is supported by circumstantial evidence including names from land charters, the Ragman Roll, and religious and public office holders and their archives. While not all details are consistent, the general flow is consistent with contemporary histories. It should be noted that the Bishop of St. Andrew's did commission a friar to write a first-hand account of Wallace's exploits, but the disposition of this manuscript is not known.

Blind Harry's poem "Barns of Ayr", for example, describes the incident when three hundred and sixty Scottish nobles, led by Wallace’s uncle, Sir Ronald Crawford, were summoned by the English to a conference in Spring of 1297. As each passed through a narrow entry, a rope was dropped around his neck, and he was hanged. It is speculated this incident did not occur assuming Blind Harry misread a line from an earlier poem about Robert the Bruce, which tells how certain Scottish nobles were hanged "in ar" (a legal term meaning "by a circuit court"). However, there is no evidence that Harry ever read the earlier poem. The incident as described by Blind Harry does appear in the 1995 film Braveheart with much less accuracy, placing the event in the childhood of Wallace and ignoring the murder of his uncle Crawford. Nevertheless, Sir Ronald Crawford did die at this time and his son replaced him as Sheriff of Ayrshire, giving some credence to the story.

Mel Gibson in Braveheart
Mel Gibson in Braveheart

In the early 19th century, Sir Walter Scott wrote of Wallace in Exploits and Death of William Wallace, the "Hero of Scotland"', and Jane Porter penned a romantic version of the Wallace legend in The Scottish Chiefs in 1810.

G.A. Henty wrote a novel in 1885 about this time period titled In Freedom's Cause. Henty, a producer of Boys Own fiction who wrote for that magazine, portrays the life of William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, The Black Douglas, and others, while dovetailing the novel with historical fiction.

Nigel Tranter authored an intended fiction titled The Wallace, published in 1975, which is said by academics to be more accurate than its literary predecessors.

Perhaps the best known account of the life of William Wallace is the 1995 film, Braveheart, directed by and starring Mel Gibson and written by Randall Wallace. This film has been criticized for its considerable historical inaccuracies, but was a commercial and critical success, winning five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.

The game Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings contains several of Wallace's battles in its Campaign mode, including the Battle of Stirling Bridge.

700th anniversary of Wallace's execution

In 2005, the 700th anniversary of Wallace's execution, his sword became the most popular feature of an exhibition in New York during the celebrations of Tartan Week. This marked the first time the sword, weighing six pounds (2.5 kg) and measuring five feet and four inches (1.62 m), was removed from Scotland.

Historian David R Ross walked 450 miles (725 km) from Robroyston in Glasgow, Scotland to London to mark the anniversary of Wallace's capture and execution. A symbolic funeral was then held at the site of Wallace's execution in Smithfield, London with an empty coffin. While the event hosted 300 attendees, more than 900 people unsuccessfully applied for tickets to the event.