William Wallace

From New World Encyclopedia

A statue of William Wallace by the entrance of Edinburgh Castle

Sir William Wallace (c. 1270 – August 23, 1305) was a Scottish knight who led a resistance to the English military occupation of Scotland during significant periods of the Wars of Scottish Independence. Wallace was the inspiration for the historical novel The Acts and Deeds of Sir William Wallace, Knight of Elderslie written by the fifteenth-century minstrel Blind Harry. For centuries after its publication, Harry's epic poem, ‘The Wallace’ was the second-most popular book in Scotland, outdone only by the Bible.

To the Scottish people, Wallace was the exemplification of undying patriotism to the cause of that country's independence, giving his life to such. His desire for peace and freedom brought the clans together while it struck fear into his enemies. Importantly, he continually defied the invading king, Edward 'Longshanks' Plantagenet I of England, when all others had given up.

On the contrary, English chroniclers consider Wallace an outlaw, a murderer, a perpetrator of atrocities and a traitor.

Wallace put the freedom of his country and people above all else in life, and is considered to be Scotland's greatest patriotic hero. Dying a martyr, he became the very symbol of Scotland’s struggle for freedom. He is respected not only among the Scottish peoples but by people of all creeds and nationalities, as all can relate to the basic right of each nation to self governance, and all understand a man's love for his native soil.


Due to the lack of conclusive evidence, Wallace's birthdate and birthplace are both disputed. Traditionally, the birthplace of 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.

The 1999 rediscovery of Wallace's seal further enshrouds his early history in mystery. While tradition claims Sir Malcolm Wallace of Elderslie as the father of three sons, Malcolm, John, and William, 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" (1999), reassesses the early life of 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 favor of an Ayrshire rather than a Renfrewshire origin for Wallace can be settled."

The Society of William Wallace contends that the Wallace family originated from Ness, a tiny village on the border of England and Wales, and were of the original Celtic stock of that area. They were vassals of the powerful Fitz-alan family, a family that had arrived in England at the time of the Norman conquest of England in 1066. They were large land owners in the Oswestry area, an area that was sometimes under English control, sometimes Welsh. When David I was King of Scots, he invited some of the Norman families that had settled in England to the north and bestowed offices upon them. The Fitz-alans were given land in the Renfrew/Paisley area, and were given the title High Stewards of Scotland. They built their castle at Renfrew on the River Clyde, and parceled out the land to their followers. The family from Ness was settled in the Elderslie area, just west of Paisley. As Ness meant nothing to the local population, they began to call them "Wallace"—the old Scottish word for people of Welsh stock. Several generations later William was born, most likely at the family’s fortified site at Elderslie, today marked by a memorial, although the family owned another small estate at Auchenbothie, a few miles away, near Howwood. [1]

Wallace is believed to have been 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.

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

Scotland in Wallace's time

William Wallace Monument

At the time of Wallace's birth, King Alexander III of Scotland had reigned for over 20 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 of Scotland (called "the Maid of Norway"), queen. Due to her age, they set up an interim government to administer Scotland until she came of age. King Edward I 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 nation. But Margaret fell ill and died at only eight years old (in 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, Edward insisted that all of the contenders recognize him as Lord Paramount of Scotland. After some initial resistance, all, including John of Scotland (John Balliol) and Robert the 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 favor of John Balliol, having the strongest claim in law. Formal announcement of the judgment was given by Edward on November 17.

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 intolerable. Goaded beyond endurance, Balliol 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 nearly everyone who resided there, even those who had fled to the churches. 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 two thousand Scottish nobles, having previously removed the Stone of Destiny from Scone Palace, the stone on which all of the kings of Scotland had been crowned.

Wallace's exploits begin

Legend has it that Wallace's father was killed in a skirmish at Loudon Hill in 1291 which planted the seed of his hatred for the foreign occupation of Scotland.

Scotland was conquered in 1296. Resentment ran deep among the Scots; many of their nobles were imprisoned, people were punitively taxed, and service was expected in Edward's military campaigns against France. Revolt began to spread across the land.

In May 1297, it is said that Wallace slew William Heselrig, the English sheriff of Lanark, and dismembered his corpse. This act of revenge for the death of Marion Braidfute of Lamington, the young maiden Wallace secretly married, caused a momentum among the people “oppressed by the burden of servitude under the intolerable rule of English domination”.

From Wallace's base in the Ettrick Forest, he and his followers struck and achieved victory in skirmishes at Loudoun Hill (near Darvel, Ayrshire), Ancrum and Dundee. He also fought alongside Sir William Douglas in Scone, Perthshire, routing the English regent, William Ormesby.

When word reached Wallace of the hanging of his uncle, Sir Ronald Crawford, he sprung into action and killed the entire English garrison in Ayr in a traditional Scottish method, locking the doors as the garrison slept and firing the flammable structures. When word reached the Crawford family that Sir Ronald had been killed, Sir Ronald's son, William, joined Wallace in the forest.

At the same time in the north, the young Andrew Murray led an even more successful rising. From Avoch in the Black Isle, he took Inverness and stormed Urquhart Castle by Loch Ness. His MacDougall allies cleared the west, while he struck through the northeast. Wallace’s rising drew strength from the south.

A major blow was struck when Scottish nobles agreed to terms with the English at Irvine in July 1297. In August, with most of Scotland liberated, Wallace left Selkirk Forest with his following to join forces with Murray's following at Stirling, where they prepared to face open battle with an English army. [2]

The Battle of Stirling Bridge

On September 11, 1297, Wallace and Murray achieved a remarkable victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Although vastly outnumbered, the Scottish forces led by Wallace and Murray bested the Earl of Surrey's professional army of three hundred cavalry and ten thousand infantry, which met disaster as they crossed 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 began to retreat as others pushed forward, and under the overwhelming weight, the bridge collapsed, causing many English soldiers to drown.

Harry claims that the bridge was rigged to collapse by Wallace's men. The Scots won a significant victory which hugely boosted the confidence of their army. Hugh Cressingham, Edward's treasurer in Scotland was included in the five thousand dead on the field. It is said that Cressingham's flayed skin was taken as a trophy of victory and to make a belt for Wallace’s sword.

Andrew Murray, Wallace's co-commander, was badly wounded in the battle and died two months later, a significant loss to the Scottish forces. William Crawford led four hundred 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, by Robert the Bruce, and was named "Guardian of Scotland and Leader of its armies," in Balliol’s name. He then became known as Sir William Wallace.

Wallace’s extraordinary military success thrust him into the top of the ladder, socially and politically. Though he was a mere knight (not a noble), he guided Scottish policy. He managed to obtain the appointment of the patriotic Bishop Lamberton to the vacant Bishopric of St. Andrews from the papacy. Europe was boldly informed of Scotland’s renewed independence.

In the six months following Stirling Bridge, Wallace led a force to York, at first 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. Edward was not to be intimidated.

Though contemporary English chroniclers accuse Wallace of atrocities, undoubtedly in his eyes the war was one of brutality and butchery from its very beginning.[2]

The Battle of Falkirk

A year later the military tables turned at the Battle of Falkirk (1298). On April 1, 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 adopted a scorched-earth policy, and English suppliers' mistakes had left morale and food low.

The English nobility had been on the edge of civil war with Edward I. They were demoralized and angry over his never-ending wars with France and Scotland. However, the humiliation of the defeat at Stirling Bridge was too much and they decided to unite behind him for the Battle of Falkirk.

At Falkirk, Wallace had seriously misjudged Edward’s battle tactics. The Welsh archers proved to be Edward's decisive weapon: their arrows rained death on the Scots spearmen. [2] 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-in-command.

Wallace the Diplomat

After Falkirk, in September 1298 the Scottish nobles reasserted their role as guardians of the kingdom and continued the war with Edward. The nobles had displayed a discouraging lack of commitment and support to Wallace's battle efforts. He was instead assigned as an envoy to the courts of Europe.

Diplomacy was critical to the war effort. A renowned figure across Europe, Wallace played a key role for Scotland in this regard. In 1299 he left Scotland for the court of King Philip IV of France. Briefly imprisoned for suspect political motives, he was soon released and given the French king’s safe escort to the papal court. He returned to Scotland in 1301, with the diplomatic effort seemingly in positive condition.

Unfortunately, France soon needed the help of Edward to suppress a revolt in Flanders, and withdrew her support of Scotland. In 1304, the Scottish leaders, seeing no prospect of victory, recognized Edward as overlord. William Wallace was the only dissenter.

By this time it had become quite apparent that Wallace and the Scottish nobles had critical differences in their opinions of the English. To Wallace, they were the enemy. He refused to compromise and denied their rule in any form. The nobles, however, were more pliable, bending to placate them when it seemed to serve their purpose. Wallace's refusal to accept the way of acquiescence resulted in a complete lack of support among the nobles, making him a concern they no longer wanted to deal with. [2]

Wallace's capture and execution

Officially declared an outlaw, Wallace's life was forfeit - anyone could legally kill him without the benefit of a trial. He continued his resistance and successfully evaded capture until August 3 (5th according to some sources), 1305, when he was captured at Robroyston, near Glasgow. His captor, Sir John Menteith, a Scottish knight loyal to Edward, has gone down in Scottish legend as the betrayer of Wallace.

Wallace was transported to London for a show trial in Westminster Hall. He was charged with being an outlaw and a traitor. Though no trial was required, Edward believed that charging him as a traitor would destroy his reputation.

Crowned with a garland of oak to suggest that he was the king of outlaws, he had no lawyers and no jury, and he wasn’t allowed to speak. However, when accused of being a traitor, he responded, "I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject." With this, Wallace asserted that the absent John Balliol was officially his king. Wallace was declared guilty and taken for immediate execution—in a manner designed to symbolize his crimes.

Following the trial, Wallace was taken from the hall, stripped naked and dragged through the city at the heels of a horse to the Elms at Smithfield. He was hanged, drawn and quartered — strangled by hanging but released while still alive, emasculated, eviscerated and his bowels burnt before him, beheaded, then cut into four parts. His preserved head was placed on a pike atop London Bridge. It was later joined by the heads of his brothers, John, and Simon Fraser. His limbs were displayed, separately, in Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling, and Aberdeen.

William Wallace the man had been destroyed, but the myth of Scotland's martyr had been born. Wallace, the enduring symbol of freedom, entered the realm of folktale and legend. Centuries later he is studied and honored. There is a plaque which stands in a wall of St. Bartholomew's Hospital near the site of Wallace's execution at Smithfield. The site is frequently visited, where to this day, flowers are left in remembrance.

It seems as though Wallace lived and died according to the creed taught to him by his uncle and recorded through poetry:

This is the truth I tell you: of all things freedom’s most fine.

Never submit to live, my son, in the bonds of slavery entwined.

—William Wallace, his uncle’s proverb, from Bower’s Scotichronicon (c. 1440s)[2]

Portrayal in fiction

An insignificant amount of comprehensive and historically accurate information was written about Wallace. Many stories, however, are based on the wandering fifteenth-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.

In the early nineteenth 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, James Douglas (the Black), 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.


  1. Society of William Wallace. Sir William Wallace Biography Retrieved December 26, 2006.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 BBC.co.uk. Scottish History: Wars of Independence – William Wallace Retrieved February 7, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Brown, Chris. William Wallace. The True Story of Braveheart. Stroud: Tempus Publishing Ltd, 2005. ISBN 0752434322
  • Clater-Roszak, Christine. "Sir William Wallace ignited a flame." Military History 14 (1997): 12–15.
  • Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain. London: The Reader’s Digest Association, 1973. pp. 519-520.
  • Harris, Nathaniel. Heritage of Scotland: A Cultural History of Scotland & Its People. London: Hamlyn, 2000. ISBN 0600598349
  • MacLean, Fitzroy. Scotland: A Concise History. London: Thames & Hudson, 1997. ISBN 0500277060
  • Morton, Graeme. William Wallace. London: Sutton, 2004. ISBN 0750935235
  • Reese, Peter. William Wallace: A Biography. Edinburgh: Canongate, 1998. ISBN 0862416078
  • Scott, Sir Walter. Exploits and death of William Wallace, the "Hero of Scotland."
  • Stead, Michael J., and Alan Young. In the Footsteps of William Wallace. London: Sutton, 2002.
  • Wallace, Margaret. William Wallace: Champion of Scotland. Musselborough: Goblinshead, 1999. ISBN 1899874194

External links

All links retrieved May 13, 2023.


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