William Wallace, Patriot / Famous Historical Figures
- Name : Wallace, Patriot
- Born : c.1270
- Died : 1305
- Category : Famous Historical Figures
- Finest Moment : Battle of Stirling Bridge, 11 September 1297
Patriotism could be said to have been unfashionable since Samuel Johnson, but in the case of William Wallace it fits. His date of birth, and perhaps even place of birth, is uncertain, but he was the eldest of three sons of Sir Malcolm Wallace of Elderslie, Renfrewshire. This was a brutal age, with Scotland living under the brutal domination of England, and Wallace was a brutal man, through circumstances. But through him, as a waking up call, the Scots built the foundations of Scottish nationalism.
The English King was Edward I, The Hammer of the Scots, and under his rule, the Scots were not a happy people. Much of the history of Wallace is conjectural, but it seems likely, from circumstantial evidence, that he did not take to being ruled by the English very lightly. What is known for sure is the event which brought him into the public light - the murder of the English Sheriff of Lanark, Sir William Heselrig, possibly in retaliation for the murder of a wife, or lover, of his, or a colleague. From then on he was a marked man. This event took place in May 1297.
He then embarked on what was effectively a guerrilla war, leaving a siege of Dundee and joining forces with Andrew Murray. On 11 September 1297, they enjoyed a major victory over the English forces at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Wallace & Murray held the high ground of Abbey Craig, about one mile to the north of the castle. Between the two forces the River Forth slowly meandered across flat, boggy ground. It was crossed by a small bridge, over which two men abreast could cross. The English leader was Surrey, and, unbelievably, that morning he slept in. English troops who had crossed the bridge recrossed it to wait for their leader. Wallace & Murray also waited and watched.
Finally, the English vanguard started over the bridge again. When they had almost gained the north bank the Scots advanced on them from Abbey Craig. The soft ground hindered the English cavalry, much as they were to do so again at Bannockburn, and they were cut down or drowned in the river trying to escape. Surrey had not crossed and so lived; Cressingham did and was cut down. Worse, his fat body was stripped and his skin flayed from him. Wallace had a sword belt made from it.
Now named the people's champion, Wallace recaptured Berwick and rampaged through Northumberland. In March 1298 he was made Guardian of the Realm. He was also knighted, but by whom we do not know (it could have been by Bruce, but there is no evidence). He knew that Edward would return of course, as indeed he did that spring. On 11 July, at Falkirk, Edward's army met Wallace's. There was a small cavalry contingent under the command of Sir John Comyn, but it seems to have been ineffective, and the Scottish spearsmen were defeated by the English longbow.
Beaten for a while, Wallace maintained a low profile, attempting to enlist help on the Continent in 1298-9. On his return he continued to resist, moving from one place to the next, with Edward's men continually harrying him. On several occasions he was forced to fight and was fortunate, and skilled enough, to escape. But the end was becoming more and more inevitable, as Edward became more and more determined.
In or near Glasgow, Wallace was betrayed on 3 August 1305 and sent to London as a prisoner by Sir John Menteith, governor of Dumbarton. He reached London on Sunday, 22 August. Following a trial in London, at which he was accused of treason (an accusation he could legitimately deny, as he had never signed a fealty to the English), he was condemned to death by the usual punishment reserved then for such crimes. It was not a trial as we would know it; Wallace had no jury, was not permitted any witnesses, and there was no plea. He was given no chance to speak for himself, though he managed to make one interruption. Sentence was made and there was no appeal. Those readers of a delicate nature had better stop here.
Wallace was drawn, perhaps wrapped in an ox-hide, at the tails of horses to the place of execution. He would have been wrapped in hide so as not to die during the four-mile course through the city, to the delight of the populace. At Smithfield he was hanged, but taken down before he was dead, so as to continue the suffering. He was then disembowelled, and probably emasculated, though there is no mention of the latter in the official record. His heart, liver, lungs and entrails were removed and thrown onto a fire. He was then decapitated and his head stuck on a pole on London Bridge.
Wallace's body was cut into four pieces: one piece went to Newcastle upon Tyne, which he had invaded in 1297-8; one quarter went to Berwick; a third went to Perth, while the fourth probably went to Stirling, scene of his most famous defeat of the English.
Edward had had his revenge, but in murdering Wallace he ultimately made a martyr out of him. The Scottish War of Independence would be continued by others, notably Bruce, but it had been Wallace who had made the Scots realise that self-determination was a possibility.