Seven centuries ago, near the bridge that leads to Stirling Castle, where small houses and neat gardens now stand, the air rang with the sounds of swords and battle axes clanging on shields, the thunder of war-horse hooves, the whine of arrows as they left their bows, and the cries of men and horses as they lay they wounded and dying. It was here that William Wallace fought the Battle of Stirling Bridge on September 11, 1297, to free Scotland from the clutches of Edward I of England, also known as the “Hammer of the Scots.”
Wallace and his army were outnumbered three to one, but the English were over-confident, and they were not expecting Wallace’s tactics. Wallace held his men out of sight behind a hill until the English had slowly crossed the small bridge leading to the castle. Then, as they were forming up, Wallace unleashed his archers, who aimed at the rear ranks of the English. Then the main body, brandishing long Scottish pikes—with Wallace leading the charge with his huge broadsword—charged down the hill. Simultaneously other elements of the Scottish forces flanked the English, thus cutting them off from reinforcements. Though the English army was made up mainly of professional soldiers and experienced knights, they panicked. It was a rout, and in the surprise and confusion the English were slaughtered. Many of the heavily armored knights drowned as they attempted to ford the river, and most of the infantry that survived the initial Scottish charge were chased down and killed. Decades of built-up anger was unleashed. No mercy was shown for the common English soldiers or the mounted knights.
The story of William Wallace, of course, starts with his birth. No one can say for sure where, or exactly when, he came into the world, for no undisputed written record of his early life exists. Most scholars now accept his birth date as being around 1272, which would put him in his mid-twenties at Stirling in 1297. It is also commonly believed that he was the second son of Sir Malcolm Wallace “of Ellerslie,” a small landowner in Ayrshire.
The movie Braveheart, starring Mel Gibson, and based on a book of fiction by the same name by American author and possible descendent Randall Wallace, romanticizes his life and deeds. In his book Mr. Wallace portrays William Wallace as a clean-living young man, not really interested in the rights or wrongs of the then current political situation. He was not a patriot, that is until Murron MacCannough, his peasant bride, was supposedly killed in Lanark by Sir William Heselrig, the local English-appointed sheriff.
Scottish historians, however, paint a somewhat different picture. According to Magnus Magnusson, in his book Scotland: A Story of a Nation, young Wallace had been on the outs with the English authorities for some time. It is said that in Dundee he killed, in a street confrontation, the son of an English constable. He managed to escape from Dundee, but from then on he was an outlaw, with a reputation for lethal brawling. Later, while fishing on Irvine Water, it is thought that he killed two English soldiers who attempted to rob him of his catch. There are other accounts of violent exploits and brutal encounters, of merciless killings and miraculous escapes, all apparently directed towards the English occupiers of Scotland. To the English Wallace was just another outlaw, but his reputation appealed to the Scots, and fueled their deep-seated resentment of the English.
What both versions of his early life agree on, however, is that his activities gradually became synonymous with Scottish patriotism. As his hate of the English grew, and his reputation as a nationalist spread, he found himself the appointed leader of an insurrection. Wallace was now a full-fledged guerrilla leader, dedicated to the destruction of all of the English in Scotland. He and his battle-hardened followers ranged far and wide, murdering Englishmen at every opportunity. He is reputed to have had the attributes of a born leader. He had bravery, nerve, imagination, charisma, as well as the physical presence (he is said to have been well over six feet tall...how tall is Mel Gibson again?) to inspire men to follow him almost blindly into battle.
In the historical version of the incident at Lanark, Wallace had secretly married a beautiful young heiress named Marion Braidfoot of Lanark. One day in May 1297, when Wallace was visiting his wife in disguise, his presence was discovered. He and his guerrilla followers managed to escape, but only after killing several of the sheriff’s men. Heselrig, the sheriff, promptly exacted retribution by having Marion seized, and then executed in the public square.
In the historical version Wallace did not blindly rush into the town, but struck back at night. Supposedly he and his men stealthily infiltrated the town in ones and twos, and then burst into his residence in Lanark Castle, where Wallace then killed Heselrig in his bed. When Heselrig’s son attempted help his father he was dispatched as well. Wallace and his men then went on a rampage of slaughter, killing every soldier in the local garrison to a man, and English civilians in the village as well.
Talk of active insurrection was now on the lips of virtually every Scot. Wallace’s slaughter of Sir William Heselrig and his entire garrison undoubtedly sparked the national revolt. A group of nobles, encouraged by the resulting nationalistic sentiment, even got into the act. Included were James Stewart (the Steward), Robert Wishart (Bishop of Glasgow), and young Robert Bruce (King of Scots, 1306-1329). While the group of nobles and their followers were encamped at Irvine on the Ayrshire coast discussing strategy, an English force led by Sir Henry Percy surrounded them and forced a surrender. Robert Bruce was one of the Scotsman who managed to escape death by renewing a pledge of loyalty to Edward I.
Wallace did not remain idle, however. He gathered his forces, and using guerrilla-style tactics, continued his attacks on the English in the southwestern part of Scotland, followed by a foray into Edinburgh itself. As the number of his followers increased, he moved on Edinburgh Castle. The garrison, hearing of Wallace’s approach, abandoned the fortress and melted away. His approach also caused the English judges in Edinburgh, who were busily handing out English justice, to flee for their lives. Scotland was now in full revolt, and no one was really in charge. Bands of armed rebels roamed the countryside, and the English troops withdrew to their forts and castles in a virtual state of siege.
The next major event was the Battle of Falkirk (July 22, 1298). Edward I had been involved with a war with France, but he returned to England in March 1298. He called a meeting of all English and Scottish nobles at York to discuss the “Scottish problem,” but, guess what… none of the Scots showed up. Wallace was at that pointed supported by all of the leading nobles in Scotland.
Edward found that his task would not be as easy as he had thought. Even his northern English barons were not convinced that he would not soon lose interest and once again depart to continue his war with France. At any rate, Edward raised a large army, some say as many as forty thousand, including several war-hardened contingents from the French wars. In the late spring he started moving north.
Whatever the true numerical size of Edward’s army, it was too large for Wallace to face in open battle. Like a good guerrilla leader, he fell back, destroying everything in his wake that could support the English. Edward, however, remembered the humiliating defeat at Stirling. This time he was more cautious. When he again reached Stirling he pulled up and waited for his supplies to catch up. When his army was rested and re-supplied he moved towards Falkirk.
Wallace, however, after his ranks swelled to a near match of what his intelligence reported that Edward had, became over confident. He disregarded the guerrilla tactics that had previously worked so well, and moved to face off with Edward. Wallace chose the actual battle ground, and waited for the English army. At first the Scots held their own, but it soon became apparent that both armies were in trouble. Edward’s Welsh contingent had not been paid, and their rations were inferior to their English counterparts. They openly threatened to side with the Scots. By the time Edward had executed the Welsh leaders, and cowed the rebellious troops, eighty Welshmen had died, and his army’s momentum had slowed.
Edward was assisted, however, by a remarkable act of treachery in the Scottish ranks. Two barons, the Earl of Angus and the Earl of Dunbar, irritated at Wallace’s rapid rise and his apparent lack of respect of their noble rank, betrayed him. After dark they rode over to the English headquarters and gave Edward Wallace’s battle plan, and outlined where all of the Scottish forces were situated. The next day, having lost the surprise, Wallace’s forces were eventually routed, and in the aftermath many were slaughtered without mercy, much like the Scots had done to the English at Stirling. Wallace fought on, swinging his huge two-handed sword, mowing a swath through the English infantry, but eventually Wallace had to be dragged from the battlefield by several of his commanders.
Scottish historians tend to blame Wallace’s defeat at the Battle of Falkirk on the treachery of the two traitorous earls, but in fact Sir Andrew Murray, his most experienced able commander, was not present. Also, for the first time, his forces were up against a new and devastating weapon—the long-range English longbow. Although Wallace managed to escape death he would never again command a major force. It was a sad day in Scottish history.
Very little has been written about the activities of Wallace following Falkirk. It is believed that he escaped to mainland Europe, where he tried unsuccessfully to enlist the support of the French. It is not certain when he actually returned to Scotland, but it is known that Edward—realizing that Sir William Wallace symbolized the spirit of Scotland’s resistance—embarked on a personal vendetta to capture him.
On August 3, 1305—as the result of betrayal by Sir John Stewart of Monteith, a fellow Scot and arch-traitor—Sir William Wallace was captured by Stewart’s men north of Glasgow at a place called Robberstone—now Robroyston—and turned over to the English. He was taken to London, and on August 23, 1305—at Westminster Hall—he was indicted.
William Wallace, “...a Scot and of Scottish birth,” was charged with “...treason, murder, spoliation of property, robbery, arson, and sacrilege and atrocities of horrible enormities.”
The trial was short, and the sentence specific:
“...That the said William, for the manifest sedition that he practiced against the Lord King himself, by feloniously contriving and acting with a view of his death and to the abasement and subversion of his crown and royal dignity, by bearing a hostile banner against his liege lord in war to the death, shall be drawn from the Palace of Westminster to the Tower of London, and from the Tower of Aldgate, and so through the midst of the City… .”
In actual effect he was condemned to be hanged, cut down while he was still conscious, disemboweled and his internal organs burned before his eyes, then decapitated and his body dismembered into quarters.
As soon as the sentence was pronounced he was taken outside and stripped naked, bound face up to a hurdle (a kind of travois) and dragged on a circuitous route of about four miles through the crowded streets of London. Then the long-drawn-out execution began. First, he was hanged by the neck to the very point of strangulation. Then, barely alive, he was cut down, and doused with water. When he regained consciousness the torment continued. His genitals were cut off and he was “drawn” like a chicken. His intestines were pulled out, then his lungs and liver, and finally his heart, ending his agony. What remained of his body was then quartered—cut into four parts—and the quarters were distributed to different parts of England for exhibition on gibbets as a warning to other aspiring Scottish nationalists. His head was placed on a spike and hoisted above London Bridge.
King Edward’s intent was to destroy the image of William Wallace as a Scottish patriot and freedom fighter, but the brutal execution accomplished exactly the opposite. Wallace immediately became a martyr, and his name the rallying cry for freedom. Today, more than ever, Wallace is seen as the national hero of Scotland, and the one man who never gave in to English tyranny.
Scots, Wha Hae
Scots, wha hae wi¹ Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften² led,
Welcome to your gory bed
Or to victorie!
Now's the day, and now's the hour:
See the front o' battle lour³,
See approach proud Edward's power-
Chains and slaverie!
Wha will be a traitor knave?
Wha can fill a coward's grave?
Wha sae base as be a slave?
Let him turn and flee!
Wha for Scotland's King and Law
Freedom's sword will strongly draw,
Freedom stand, or freedom fa',
Let him follow me!
By Oppression's woes and pains,
By your sons in servile chains,
We will drain our dearest veins,
But they shall be free!
Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty's in every blow!
Let us do, or die!
Robert Burns 1759-1796
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