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William Wallace

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William Wallace

He has a reputation as one of the greatest Scots heroes who ever lived - but the patriot Sir William Wallace may also have been the role model for one of England's greatest historical figures.

Some modern scholars believe that Wallace, whose fearless struggle for his country was immortalised in the film Braveheart, could well have provided the inspiration for the English folk hero Robin Hood.

Comparisons between the man who helped save Scotland from the English yoke and the folk hero of Sherwood Forest who robbed from the rich to give to the poor are uncanny.

For a start, both men were outlaws. Wallace is thought to have had a mistress called Marion, while Robin Hood's partner was called Maid Marion. And Robin had a follower called Friar Tuck, while one of William's retinue was a Benedictine monk called Edward Little.

Another intriguing comparison is that Robin Hood had a colleague called Little John. Wallace, who is reputed to have been six feet seven inches tall, is thought to have had a smaller brother called John, who may have been nicknamed "Little John" by the rest of the great man's followers.

One authority on the period says: "Thus comparison isn't fanciful. The story of Robin Hood could actually be the English making up their own version of William Wallace in order to claim their own hero. It could be the propaganda machine of English history at work."

Many historians are sceptical of the claim, though they do concede that there is no evidence that Robin Hood was a real figure, while we can prove that Wallace existed.

So what do we know about Scotland's great hero? We have plenty of evidence that he was a remarkable man and a great patriot, and that in his short 35-year life, he made a major contribution to Scotland's freedom and independence from England.

Wallace is believed to have been born around 1270 either at Elderslie in present-day Renfrewshire or at Ellerslie near Kilmarnock in Ayrshire. He is thought to have been the son of Sir Malcolm Wallace, a knight and small landowner in Renfrew.

As a boy, Wallace was sent to live with his uncle in Stirlingshire, who instilled him with stories about Scottish freedom and independence. Relations between England and Scotland had been amicable until Edward I took the English throne in 1272 and inaugurated 250 years of bitter hatred, savage warfare, and bloody border forays.

In 1286, when William was a boy, the Scots king Alexander III of Scotland, died. Many claimants to the throne arose, and the Scottish nobles foolishly requested Edward's arbitration. He cleverly compelled them all to recognise his overlordship of Scotland before pronouncing John Balliol king in 1292.

Balliol did homage and was crowned, but Edward's insistence on having the final say in Scottish cases eventually provoked the Scottish nobles to force Balliol to ally with France. Edward invaded and conquered Scotland in 1296, taking the Stone of Destiny on which Scottish kings were crowned to Westminster. Balliol abdicated, and Edward decided to rule the Scots himself.

This treatment, along with the outrages committed by English soldiers, infuriated Wallace, who decided to rise up along with a gang of supporters and take on the invaders. He was made an outlaw after stabbing to death the son of the governor of Dundee in 1291, and news of his bravery and exploits in ambushing English soldiers quickly spread across the country.

Wallace's first major act of resistance came when he sacked Lanark in 1297. He is said to have married his sweetheart, Marion Braidfute, who lived in the town and bore him a daughter. English forces attempted to seize him and when he escaped, they murdered Marion.

The death of his wife turned Wallace's campaign against the English from an act of national liberation into a hate-filled personal vendetta. He returned to Lanark, decapitated the sheriff with his sword, and set fire to the house. The town's population rose up and the entire English garrison was forced out.

Edward's troops on the run, Wallace stepped up the pressure. He put together an army of commoners and small landowners and attacked 500 English soldiers at Ayr. He then seized Glasgow and marched on Scone before moving north into the Western Highlands.

By this stage, Scotland's nobles were beginning to realise the power of this remarkable man, and they started to embrace his cause. Edward responded by sending 40,000 men north to try and sort the problem out. Wallace suffered a setback when many of the nobles deserted to the English near Irvine, but he was undaunted.

William succeeded in pushing the English south of the Forth, but Edward's army responded by trying to move north again. At the abbey of Cambuskenneth, the two sides finally met. The outnumbered Scots refused to negotiate with the English, saying they were there to prove that Scotland was free.

The result was that, on September 11 1297, the English army under John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, tried to push across a narrow bridge across the River Forth at Stirling Bridge. It was a poor piece of military judgement, and Wallace immediately capitalised on it.

Wallace, who had only 16,000 men, had two major advantages. Firstly, he commanded the high ground; and secondly, the bridge would only take horse riders two abreast. However, he also faced a dilemma. If he attacked too early, it would have left most of the English army unscathed on the other side of the river and in a position to counter attack. But if he attacked too late, most of the solders would have crossed and he would be hopelessly overwhelmed.

Wallace picked his moment carefully. As the army began to cross in numbers, his forces charged and secured the bridgehead. The English caught on the bridge panicked and fell and jumped into the water. Some of the English army, stunned by the ferocity of Wallace's charge, fled back across the bridge. The ones left behind on the north side were systematically butchered.

The battle lasted barely an hour. More than five thousand English had died while Wallace suffered only negligible losses. De Warenne beat a hasty retreat, harried by Wallace's forces as they moved south. It was a great victory, and led to Wallace being appointed Guardian of Scotland by a delighted Scottish nobility.

By the end of the month the English had been expelled totally from Scotland. Wallace then marched into England in search of booty, which he collected as far south as Newcastle, often showing the same brutality which the English forces had shown the Scots.

A furious Edward swore revenge and put together a massive army of 100,000 footmen and 8000 horsemen. Recognising the superiority of Edward's army, Wallace withdrew north. Unfortunately, his plans to surprise the English in a night attack were betrayed by two Scottish nobles. Edward immediately ordered his men to advance, until the two armies met at Falkirk.

Wallace's problems in being massively outnumbered were made infinitely worse when Comyn, the Lord of Badenoch who provided a large part of the Scots army, deserted the field with his men. It was a fight William could not win. The Scots army was utterly defeated, though Wallace himself slipped away from the battlefield, resigned the Guardianship and went to France to beg for help from the French.

Unable to gain support from Philip - and, it is now believed, from the Pope, as he either planned or actually made a trip to Rome during this time - Wallace returned to Scotland in 1303 and once again began harassing the English.

Since his departure for France, however, things at home had changed. Edward had now completely overwhelmed the Scots, and most nobles now submitted to him. Scotland had become a treacherous place for Wallace, especially since he was still public enemy number one as far as Edward was concerned and a bounty of 300 merks had been placed on his head.

Inevitably, he was betrayed. He was seized by a Scots baron, John Monteith, near Glasgow, taken to Dumbarton castle, and then moved to London under heavy guard. On 23 August 1305, he was tried for treason. In an impassioned statement, Wallace rejected this, point out he had never accepted Edward as king. "I cannot be a traitor", he said, "for I owe him no allegiance. He is not my sovereign; he never received my homage."

His resistance was futile. Wallace was found guilty, condemned, and immediately dragged on a cart through the streets of London to Smithfield. He was subjected to the most brutal of executions - hung until only half-dead, castrated, and then slit open while still alive to have his guts pulled out and burned in front of his eyes. Only then was he finally beheaded.

Even this was not the final ignominy. His head was placed on a pole on London Bridge, and his body cut into quarters and sent to Berwick, Newcastle, Perth and Aberdeen as warning to others. It was an inglorious end, but by then Wallace's place in history as one of the great men of Scotland had been assured.

Modern day historians agree that Wallace was one of the greatest Scots who ever lived. Geoffrey Barrow, Emeritus Professor of Scottish History at Edinburgh University and an expert on the period, says: "His one outstanding quality was his sense of single mindedness. He had one aim - to re-establish the independence of the kingdom - and he stuck to it."

And another Wallace expert, Professor Archie Duncan of Glasgow University, says: "He seems to have been a remarkable man. What is really interesting is that he seems to have been accepted as a leader despite his social class as the younger son of a relatively inconsequential family. You'd normally expect to find someone like that in the entourage of someone further up the social hierarchy."


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