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Sir William Wallace: Scottish Hero

Gaelic Pure Scotch Whisky, like Sir William Wallace, quintessentially Scottish

Gaelic Pure Scotch Whisky is a genuine Scottish product. Our whisky and ales are as authentically Scottish as some of the famous individuals described in these pages. To further capture the spirit of Scotland, please read on...

Sir William Wallace was a Scottish landowner who became one of the main leaders during the Wars of Scottish Independence.

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

Since his death, Wallace has obtained a rather iconic status far beyond Scotland. 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 books by Sir Walter Scott and Jane Porter and of the 1995 Academy Award winning epic film Braveheart starring Mel Gibson in the lead role of Wallace.

William Wallace was not a member of nobility and little is known for certain 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 feudal tenants of James Stewart, 5th High Steward of Scotland as their lands belonged to him. William Wallace is possibly descended from a Richard Wallace who came to Scotland in the 1130s in the service of his employer, who had been appointed Steward by King David I.

Some believe the name of William Wallace's father was 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. The name Alan Wallace appears in the Ragman Rolls as a crown tenant in Ayrshire, but there is no additional proof. The traditional view regards Wallace's birthplace as Elderslie in Renfrewshire, and this still tends to be the view of most historians, but there have been recent claims that he came from Ellerslie in Ayrshire. There is no evidence linking him with either location, although both areas had definite connections with the wider Wallace family.

The struggle for the throne of Scotland

When Wallace was growing up, King Alexander III sat on the throne of Scotland. Alexander's reign had brought 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. However, as Margaret was still a child and a long way away in Norway, the Scottish lords set up a government of guardians. Margaret became ill on the voyage to Scotland and died in Orkney. With no clear heir present in Scotland there became a period known as the 'Great Cause', with several families laying claim to the throne.

Because of this situation, Scotland was brought to the brink of civil war. King Edward was asked by the Scottish nobility to arbitrate. Before the process could begin, he insisted that all of the contenders to the throne recognise him as Lord Paramount of Scotland. In November 1292, at a court held in the castle at Berwick-upon-Tweed, judgement was given in favour of John Balliol having the strongest claim in the eyes of the law.

Edward then reversed the rulings of the Scottish Lords and even had King John Balliol summoned to stand before the English court as a common plaintiff. John was a rather weak king, who became 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 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 1,800 Scottish nobles.

William Wallace's military career

Some believe that Wallace must have had some earlier military experience; campaigns like Edward I of England's wars in Wales provided a good opportunity for Wallace to become a mercenary soldier.

Because of this, some believe that it would have taken military knowledge to defeat the English at Stirling bridge. Wallace's personal seal attached to a letter sent 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 his military services.

Many people believed that Wallace was a giant of a man, at least seven feet tall. However, there is no real evidence of this but the chances are that as he was believed to have served as a professional archer, he would have been very strong as the draw weight of the long bow was considerable.

The start of the Scottish uprising

The first act 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 many rebellions taking place across Scotland, including those of some other Scottish nobles and Andrew Moray in the north.

The uprising suffered a blow when the noble lords 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 1297.

Battle of Stirling Bridge

On 11 September 1297, an army led by William Wallace and Andrew Moray won the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Although greatly 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 restricted width of the bridge prevented many soldiers from crossing together, 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 first, followed by heavy cavalry. But the Scots 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. The Scots won a major victory which boosted the confidence of their army. Hugh Cressingham, Edwards 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.

After the battle, Moray and Wallace were awarded 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 the familiar Scottish terrain. This was in contrast to the commonly held views on chivalric warfare which were characterized by strength of arms and knightly combat. The battle therefore strained the relations between the two antagonistic nations, whilst also 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 also adopted the tactics employed by Wallace.

Around November 1297, Wallace led a massive raid into northern England, through Northumberland and Cumberland. Because of this, Wallace was knighted. This would have been carried out by a Scottish earl.

The famous Battle of Falkirk

In April 1298, King Edward the Longshanks ordered a second invasion of Scotland. His forces 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 retreating army. The English quartermasters failure to prepare for the expedition left morale and food supplies low, and a resulting riot within Edwards 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 men in circular formations surrounded by a defensive wall of long wooden pikes. The English however employed Welsh longbowmen who swung strategic superiority in their favour. The English proceeded to attack with heavy cavalry, and managed to break up the Scottish archers. Under the command of the Scottish nobles, the Scottish knights withdrew, and Edwards men began to attack Wallace's men. It is not clear whether the infantry shooting bolts, arrows and stones at the Scottish spearmen proved the deciding factor, although it is quite likely that it was the arrows of Edwards bowmen. Gaps in the Scottish ranks soon appeared, and the English exploited these to crush the remaining resistance. The Scots lost many men, although Wallace escaped, his military reputation suffered very 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, who was King John Balliol's nephew.

Details of Wallace's activities after this are pretty 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 lend assistance to Sir William Wallace. It also suggests that Wallace may have intended to travel to Rome, although it is not known if he actually did.

By 1304 Sir William was back in Scotland, and involved in various skirmishes at Happrew and Earnside.

Sir William Wallace's Capture and Execution

Wallace managed to evade capture by the English until 5 August 1305 when John de Menteith, a Scottish knight loyal to King Edward, turned Wallace over to English soldiers at Robroyston near Glasgow. Documents found on Wallace at the time, and delivered to Edward by John de Segrave, included letters of safe conduct from Haakon V of Norway, Philip IV of France, and John Balliol, along with some other documents.

Wallace was taken 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. 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 actually his king.

Following the trial, on 23 August 1305, Wallace was taken from the hall to the Tower of London, he was 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. This involved him being strangled by hanging but released while he was still alive, castrated, eviscerated and his bowels burnt before him, beheaded, then cut into four parts. His head was preserved by dipping it in tar and was placed on a pike on London Bridge. 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.

Sir William Wallace in fiction

In the early 19th century, Walter Scott wrote of Wallace in Exploits and Death of William Wallace, the "Hero of Scotland", and Jane Porter wrote 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 Freedoms Cause. Henty, a producer of the Boys Own Paper fiction who wrote for that magazine, portrays the life of William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, The Black Douglas, and others, while dovetailing the events of his novel with historical fiction. Nigel Tranter wrote a historical novel titled The Wallace, published in 1975, which is said to be more accurate than its literary predecessors. In 2010, the novelist Jack Whyte gave another fictionalised account of Wallace's life, particularly his early life, in The Forest Laird, the first book in The Guardians of Scotland trilogy.

Perhaps the most recent and well known account is that of the 1995 film Braveheart, directed by and starring the Australian actor Mel Gibson as Sir William Wallace. The screenplay was written by Randall Wallace, and filmed in both Scotland and Ireland. The film, arguably a highly fictionalised account of Wallace's life, was a commercial success and won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, but has been widely criticised by historians for its many inaccuracies.