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© 1996 by Melanie. Used by permission from the author.
William Wallace is a hero to the Scots, to be sure, but much of him seems to be borne in legends, now. There is not a great deal to be known about him. He was born at Elderslie, in Paisley Parish. His father was a vassal of the High Steward of Scotland, James Stewart. It is possible that Wallace received some education at Paisley Abbey, for it does appear that he knew Latin and French. He had uncles who were priests, and it is likely that they taught him. He married Marian Braidfoot around 1297 in the church of St. Kentigern in Lanark. As portrayed in the film Braveheart, Marian (or Murron) was indeed murdered under the direction of the English sheriff of Lanark, William de Hazelrig, in May of 1297. However, it appears that, in reality, she was killed because Wallace had done more than protect her from a previous assault by English soldiers, as depicted in the film. It seems that he had already risen against the English when they killed Marian in reprisal.
Interestingly, at the same time that Wallace was attacking Hazelrig, Andrew Murray was leading an attack against the English in the Highlands. There were other rebellions across the country at that time, as well. The unrest was due to the imposition of strict rule on the Scots after John Balliol, who had held the throne of Scotland for a brief time, gave up his kingship. Edward I had control of Scotland, as she had no king, and he wanted to make certain that the Scots did not break free from beneath his hand. He ruled that they could carry no weapons, could not speak their native language, and could not play their customary musical instruments, such as the bagpipes. Under such oppression it was not surprising that the Scots did react, many of them forming weapons from farm implements.
Wallace's huge act of rebellion attracted the attention of common folk and Scots nobles alike, all of whom were unwilling to bear Edward I's bonds. These, including James Stewart, to whom William Wallace's father had been a vassal, Sir James Douglas, and Robert the Bruce allied with Wallace and, under the tutelage of the Bishop of Glasgow, Robert Wishart, they prepared to throw off the shackles of the English.
Wallace and Murray were aghast when the nobles who had allied with them surrendered to the English on July 9, 1297 at Irvine. In response, the two men began to take control of the rebel forces which had become scattered about the country. By August they had consolidated the rebels into one army at Stirling.
The Battle of Stirling happened a little differently than portrayed in the film. On September 11, 1297, the English forces were arrayed around Stirling Castle, while the Scots were opposite them across the Forth, which wound through a valley there. All that separated them was a bridge across the Forth. Because of poor commanding by the English leaders, the English were trapped as they crossed the bridge and were slaughtered by the Scots. It was an incredible victory for Wallace and Murray.
Unfortunately, Murray was mortally wounded during the battle and died shortly thereafter. Wallace assumed control of the rebels himself, then, but it is acknowledged that he had lost an irreplaceable partner in Murray. Still, Wallace lead his men on a deadly raid all the way to County Durham, England, in October. In November he and his men returned to Scotland to wait out the bitter winter. During that time he reconsolidated his forces.
In March of 1298 Wallace was knighted, possibly by Robert the Bruce himself, in Tor Wood, and he was appointed Guardian of Scotland. The fact that a man of his means was appointed to such a potentially powerful position indicates how revered he was by the nobles for his role in trying to free Scotland, and how dear to the Scots nobles freedom was.
There is no evidence that Wallace ever misused the power that was given him by the nobles. Instead he used it to the best of his ability to rally the commoners and the nobles around him to fight the English. This is to his credit, for many of the nobles might not have been quite so honorable in the same position. Wallace remained steadfast and did not waiver from his goal of freedom for Scotland.
Edward I and his men finally headed for Scotland in July of 1298. One of Wallace's tactics was to move all livestock and people from the path that the English would take through Scotland on their way to meet him. This would guarantee that the English would not find ready provisions or information as they traveled north. Another of Wallace's tactics was to train his men to use shiltrons -- groups of men holding spears out in all directions, forming a defense much like that of a porcupine or hedgehog. In Braveheart, true shiltrons were not used but were replaced by long spears used to defend against the English heavy horse. However, shiltrons had proved very successful in past battles. And so Wallace and his men awaited the English.
Sadly, the English army was much larger than that of the Scots, and despite Wallace's best efforts, the English decimated the Scots at Falkirk. Wallace himself barely escaped the field with his life. Some historians do believe that Robert the Bruce was involved in rescuing Wallace from the battlefield, as shown in the film, but others place the Bruce in Ayrshire, where he attacked Ayr Castle, which was under English occupation. I personally believe that Bruce very well could have been at Falkirk, for he did not attack and burn Ayr Castle until August of 1298.
After the Scots' horrendous loss at Falkirk, Wallace resigned as Guardian, though it is not known if he did so willingly or not. Robert the Bruce and his cousin, John Comyn, the Red, were appointed to replace him in that position. Very little is known of Wallace's activities from the time of his resignation until his capture and eventual execution in 1304. As depicted in Braveheart, Wallace probably did lead several raids into northern England. However, what was not included in the film was the possibility that Wallace went to the Continent to seek help from the Norse, French, and even the Pope. A letter from Philip IV was sent to Rome asking that Wallace be given the help that could be managed. Based upon the letter's date, Wallace was probably in Rome around 1300.
Raids into England continued into 1303, most of them performed in Wallace's style, though we do not know if he was actually a member of these raiding parties. However, these additional forays into England served only to anger Edward I further, so that he concentrated his efforts to find Wallace. Wallace managed, with the help of the many Scots who believed him to be a hero, to elude Edward, at least for a time. But Edward so strongly beat the Scots nobles into submission that Wallace's days were surely numbered.
Though we know nothing of the actual capture of Wallace near Glasgow aside from the fact that it was accomplished by Scotsman John Mentieth, we do know that Wallace was immediately taken to London, as shown in the film, and he arrived there on August 22. He was lead through the streets of Fenchurch the next morning, where the crowds, much as they did in the film, jeered him and pelted him with rotten food and bread. The English had been lead to believe that Wallace was a merciless outlaw who had killed innocent Englishmen and who should be punished.
At Westminster Hall Wallace was forced to stand on a platform and wear what some believe was a crown of thorns. He went before a magisterial panel appointed by Edward. Interestingly, one of the main charges brought against him was the murder of the Sheriff of Lanark, Hazelrig, some eight years before. Another charge was, of course, treason. The charges were read and the sentence pronounced, as was the custom of the day, for outlaws, being outside the law, had no rights; Wallace was not given any opportunity to speak in his own defense.
The sentence was immediately carried out: Wallace was wrapped in oxhide and dragged several miles, to Aldgate. Then, as shown in the film, he was hanged until almost unconscious, then he was taken down, tied to a table, disemboweled, and his entrails were set afire while still attached to him. He was possibly castrated, as well. He was finally put out of his unimaginable misery by being beheaded. His body was quartered, the pieces being sent to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in England, and Berwick, Perth, and Stirling in Scotland, and his head was placed on a pike on London Bridge for all to see, all as a warning to other would-be traitors.
William Wallace's ideals may best be summed up in what some have said was his favorite bit of verse, originally in Latin:
Freedom is best, I tell thee true, of all things to be won. Then never live within the bond of slavery, my son.
And so it was on the 3rd of August of 1304 that Sir John Mentieth captured William Wallace somewhere near Glasgow. Sadly, Mentieth had been on the side of Scots freedom some time before, but he had grown greedy and had succumbed to Edward I. In reward he was made sheriff of Dumbarton. Though there is no indication that Wallace was on his way to meet The Bruce when he was betrayed, the film was, sadly, accurate in its depiction of his betrayal by one of his own countrymen.
Today one can see several Scots' monuments to their hero: one at Edinburgh Castle, on one side of the entrance (The Bruce occupies the other side); one in Lanark, in a niche above the door of the current parish church facing High Street; and the most famous, in Stirling, at the National Wallace Monument. Wallace lives on in the imagination of Scotland.
Information on the National Wallace Monument, Stirling, Scotland
Open: February and November, 10am - 4pm, weekends only
March - May & October, 10am - 5pm daily
June & September, 10am - 6pm daily
July & August, 9:30am - 6:30pm daily
January & December, closed.