William Wallace

Sir William Wallace (Medieval Gaelic: Uilliam Uallas; modern Scottish Gaelic: Uilleam Uallas; Norman French: William le Waleys;) (died 23 August 1305) was a Scottish landowner who became one of the main leaders during the Wars of Scottish Independence.

Statue of William Wallace

 

Along with Andrew Moray, Wallace defeated an English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297, and was Guardian of Scotland, serving until his defeat at the Battle of Falkirk in July 1298. In 1305, Wallace was captured in Robroyston near Glasgow and handed over to King Edward I of England, who had him summarily hanged, drawn, and quartered for high treason and crimes against English civilians.

Since his death, Wallace has obtained an iconic status far beyond his homeland. He is the protagonist of the 15th-century epic poem The Acts and Deeds of Sir William Wallace, Noble of Elderslie, by Blind Harry. Wallace is also the subject of literary works by Sir Walter Scott and Jane Porter and of the 1995 Academy Award-winning epic film Braveheart.

 

Background

William Wallace was not a member of the nobility and little is definitely known of his family history. Records show early members of the family as holding estates at Riccarton, Tarbolton, and Auchincruive in Kyle, and Stenton in Haddingtonshire. They were vassals of James Stewart, 5th High Steward of Scotland as their lands fell within his territory. Some sources give the name of William Wallace's father as Malcolm Wallace, however the seal attached to a letter sent to the Hanse city of Lübeck in 1297 appears to give his father's name as Alan. His brothers Malcolm and John are known from other sources. An Alan Wallace appears in the Ragman Rolls as a crown tenant in Ayrshire, but there is no additional confirmation. The traditional view regards Wallace's birthplace as Elderslie in Renfrewshire, and this is still the view of most historians, but there have been recent claims that he came from Ellerslie in Ayrshire. There is no contemporary evidence linking him with either location, although both areas had connections with the wider Wallace family.

 

 

Political crisis in Scotland

When Wallace was growing up, King Alexander III ruled Scotland. His reign had seen a period of peace and economic stability. In 1286, however, Alexander died after falling from his horse.

The heir to the throne was Alexander's granddaughter, Margaret, Maid of Norway. As she was still a child and in Norway, the Scottish lords set up a government of guardians. Margaret fell ill on the voyage to Scotland and died in Orkney. The lack of a clear heir led to a period known as the 'Great Cause', with several families laying claim to the throne.

With Scotland threatening to descend into civil war, King Edward was invited in by the Scottish nobility to arbitrate. Before the process could begin, he insisted that all of the contenders recognise him as Lord Paramount of Scotland. In early November 1292, at a great feudal court held in the castle at Berwick-upon-Tweed, judgement was given in favour of John Balliol having the strongest claim in law.

Edward proceeded to reverse the rulings of the Scottish Lords and even summoned King John Balliol to stand before the English court as a common plaintiff. John was a weak king, known as "Toom Tabard" or "Empty Coat". John renounced his homage in March 1296 and by the end of the month Edward stormed Berwick-upon-Tweed, sacking the then-Scottish border town. In April, the Scots were defeated at the Battle of Dunbar in East Lothian and by July, Edward had forced John to abdicate. Edward then instructed his officers to receive formal homage from some 1,800 Scottish nobles (many of the rest being prisoners of war at that time).

 

Military career

Silent years (prior to the Wars of Independence)

Some historians such as Andrew Fisher believe Wallace must have had some earlier military experience. Campaigns like Edward I of England's wars in Wales, provided a good opportunity for a younger son of a landholder with no prospects in life other than becoming a monk or priest to become a mercenary soldier.

This theory suggests that it would have taken military knowledge to defeat the English at Stirling Bridge. Wallace's personal seal attached to a letter sent to the Hanse city of Lübeck in 1297 may not only reveal the name of his father but also bears the archers' insignia. If Wallace was indeed an archer he must have been a professional, worth paying a reasonable sum of money for military services. The first class long bow (as probably used by Wallace) had a draw weight of up to 170 lbs.

This is in accordance with Bower who states that Wallace was " a tall man with the body of a giant ... with lengthy flanks ...broad in the hips, with strong arms and legs ... with all his limbs very strong and firm". Blind Harry's Wallace reaches seven feet.

 

The start of the uprising

The first act definitely known to have been carried out by Wallace was his assassination of William de Heselrig, the English High Sheriff of Lanark, in May 1297. He then joined with William the Hardy, Lord of Douglas, and they carried out the raid of Scone. This was one of several rebellions taking place across Scotland, including those of several Scottish nobles and Andrew Moray in the north.

The uprising suffered a blow when the nobles submitted to the English at Irvine in July. Wallace and Moray were not involved, and continued their rebellions. Wallace used the Ettrick Forest as a base for raiding, and attacked Wishart's palace at Ancrum. Wallace and Moray met and joined their forces, possibly at the siege of Dundee in early September.

 

Battle of Stirling Bridge

On 11 September 1297, an army jointly led by Wallace and Andrew Moray won the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Although vastly outnumbered, the Scottish army routed the English army. John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Surrey's professional army of 3,000 cavalry and 8,000 to 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. The infantry were sent on first, followed by heavy cavalry. But the Scots' schiltron formations forced the infantry back into the advancing cavalry. A pivotal charge, led by one of Wallace's captains, caused some of the English soldiers to retreat as others pushed forward, and under the overwhelming weight, the bridge collapsed and many English soldiers drowned. Thus the Scots won a significant victory which boosted the confidence of their army. Hugh Cressingham, Edward's treasurer in Scotland, died in the fighting and it is reputed that his body was subsequently flayed and the skin cut into small pieces as tokens of the victory. The Lanercost Chronicle records that Wallace had "a broad strip [of Cressingham’s skin] ... taken from the head to the heel, to make therewith a baldrick for his sword".

After the battle, Moray and Wallace assumed the title of Guardians of the Kingdom of Scotland on behalf of King John Balliol. Moray died of wounds suffered on the battlefield sometime in late 1297.

The type of engagement conducted by Wallace was characterized by opportunistic tactics and the strategic use of terrain. This was in stark contrast to the contemporary views on chivalric warfare which were characterized by strength of arms and knightly combat. The battle therefore embittered relations between the two antagonistic nations, whilst also perhaps providing a new departure in the type of warfare which England had hitherto employed. The numerical and material inferiority of the Scottish forces would be mirrored by that of the English in the Hundred Years' War, who, in turn, abandoned chivalric warfare to achieve decisive victory in similar engagements such as Crécy and Poitiers.

Around November 1297, Wallace led a large-scale raid into northern England, through Northumberland and Cumberland.

About this time, Wallace was knighted. This would have been carried out by one of three Scottish earls: Carrick, Strathearn or Lennox.

 

Battle of Falkirk

In April 1298, Edward ordered a second invasion of Scotland. They plundered Lothian and regained some castles, but failed to bring William Wallace to combat; the Scots shadowed the English army, intending to avoid battle until shortages of supplies and money forced Edward to withdraw, at which point the Scots would harass his retreat. The English quartermasters' failure to prepare for the expedition left morale and food supplies low, and a resulting riot within Edward's own army had to be put down by his cavalry. In July, while planning a return to Edinburgh for supplies, Edward received intelligence that the Scots were encamped nearby at Falkirk, and he moved quickly to engage them in the pitched battle he had long hoped for.

Wallace arranged his spearmen in four schiltrons — circular, hedgehog formations surrounded by a defensive wall of wooden stakes. The English however employed Welsh longbowmen who swung strategic superiority in their favour. The English proceeded to attack with cavalry, and break up the Scottish archers. Under the command of the Scottish nobles, the Scottish knights withdrew, and Edward's men began to attack the schiltrons. It remains unclear whether the infantry shooting 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. Gaps in the schiltrons soon appeared, and the English exploited these to crush the remaining resistance. The Scots lost many men, including John de Graham. Wallace escaped, though his military reputation suffered badly.

By September 1298, Wallace resigned as Guardian of Scotland in favour of Robert the Bruce, Earl of Carrick and future king, and John Comyn of Badenoch, King John Balliol's nephew.

Details of Wallace's activities after this are vague, but there is some evidence that he left on a mission to the court of King Philip IV of France to plead the case for assistance in the Scottish struggle for independence. There is a surviving letter from the French king dated 7 November 1300 to his envoys in Rome demanding that they should help Sir William. It also suggests that Wallace may have intended to travel to Rome, although it is not known if he did. There is also a report from an English spy at a meeting of Scottish leaders, where they said Wallace was in France.

By 1304 Wallace was back in Scotland, and involved in skirmishes at Happrew and Earnside.

 

Capture and Execution

Wallace evaded capture by the English until 3 August 1305 when John de Menteith, a Scottish knight loyal to Edward, turned Wallace over to English soldiers at Robroyston near Glasgow. There were documents found on Wallace, and then delivered to Edward by John de Segrave, included letters of safe conduct from Haakon V of Norway, Philip IV of France, and John Balliol, with other documents.

Wallace was transported to London, lodged in the house of William de Leyre, then taken to Westminster Hall, where he was tried for treason and for atrocities against civilians in war, "sparing neither age nor sex, monk nor nun." He was crowned with a garland of oak to suggest he was the king of outlaws. He responded to the treason charge, "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.

Following the trial, on 23 August 1305, Wallace was taken from the hall to the Tower of London, then 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 he was still alive, emasculated, eviscerated and his bowels burnt before him, beheaded, then cut into four parts. His preserved head (dipped in tar) was placed on a pike atop London Bridge. It was later joined by the heads of the brothers, John and Simon Fraser. His limbs were displayed, separately, in Newcastle upon Tyne, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Stirling, and Perth. A plaque stands in a wall of St. Bartholomew's Hospital near the site of Wallace's execution at Smithfield.

In 1869 the Wallace Monument was erected, very close to the site of his victory at Stirling Bridge. The Wallace Sword, which supposedly belonged to Wallace, although some parts were made at least 160 years later, was held for many years in Dumbarton Castle and is now in the Wallace Monument.

 

Why not visit our friends at The Society of William Wallace

 

The society of William Wallace