William Wallace was one of the greatest heroes of the Scottish Wars of Independence. Starting from the fifteenth century epic The Wallace by the famed Scottish poet ‘Blind’ Harry, Wallace came to be seen as a national icon of Scottish pride and the fierce Scottish determination to stay independent of English rule. Since then, William Wallace has swiftly made his way through the countless museums, memorials and historical works devoted to him into the popular culture of the United Kingdom. In Scotland in particular, William Wallace is seen as a martyr who spent his life for the Scottish cause and was eventually brutally tortured to death by the expansionist King Edward I.
The Wallace family was likely a Celtic family which originally migrated from Wales or northern England and now belonged to the lower ranks of the Scottish nobility in the thirteenth century. Little is known about the childhood or even lineage of William Wallace. His father’s name was Alan Wallace, as evidenced by his seal found on a letter dating from October 1297. The Wallace family held lands mostly in south-western Scotland, where William was probably born. He was quite apparently literate in Latin and had been trained well in martial arts by his father or another professional trainer. His previous military experiences are unknown, although it does seem clear that William Wallace was more of a guerrilla, asymmetric type than a regular military commander or champion. It is known from multiple sources that Wallace grew up to be a very tall and muscular man with a respectable personality.
Chaos in Scotland
Scotland was experiencing a great period of progress during the late-thirteenth century. Trade routes were established with Continental Europe and border disputes with England reduced in frequency. However, after the death of King Alexander III of Scotland, and especially after his young heir Margaret died on her way to Scotland in 1290, the dispute over succession of the Scottish throne became intense. As the thirteen claimants could not agree on anyone, they eventually had to get the ambitious Edward I of England involved. Edward chose John Balliol, who effectively became a vassal of his benefactor. When the Scottish nobles retaliated by de facto relieving him from his duties, Edward responded with a full-scale invasion of England in 1296. Scottish resistance collapsed soon, and only the fringes of Scottish ruling classes continued to resist. These included a young man from southern Ayrshire named William Wallace, whose pride could not possibly let him sit idle while English officials mistreated their subject Scottish people.
Clandestine Activities and Alliance with Moray
It is unclear whether William Wallace was deliberately planning to launch some form of resistance movement when he murdered the High Sheriff of Lanark, a Scottish town in the Central Belt only 50 kilometres from the capital of Edinburgh, in May 1297. Shortly after the incident/assassination, however, Wallace joined with William Douglas “The Hardy”, a Scottish lord in open rebellion against the English. The two launched their first major attack on Scone, the traditional site where the Scottish kings were crowned, which was very successful. Soon afterwards, Douglas was captured, but Wallace continued his efforts as the new leader of the force, regularly carrying out raids into the Central Belt. In addition to Wallace, the only major resistance leader in Scotland during this period was Andrew de Moray, based at Avoch Castle deep into the highlands. The two eventually joined forces later in 1297, and drove out almost all the remaining English forces in Scotland.
By late-summer, Edward I was all too aware of the worsening situation in Scotland and sent a very substantial army under the Earl of Surrey to defeat the rebels. Defeating this force was to be the most challenging but rewarding episode of Wallace’s life. Wallace and Moray decided to risk a decisive action at Stirling Bridge on the River Forth, the main passage way leading to the Highlands. The English commander was extremely reluctant to cross the bridge in the presence of a considerable Scottish force (although his was probably as much as three times larger) and tried to negotiate a surrender. When the Scottish resistance leaders refused to give up, he finally attempted a crossing on 11th September, with devastating results. The Scots allowed a portion of the English army to cross, before launching a furious onslaught which broke through the unorganised English lines. The resulting panic meant that too many men were trying to flee from the bridge, which soon collapsed under the weight of hundreds of armed men, killing many. Despaired at this catastrophic setback, the Earl of Surrey retreated from Scotland. Unfortunately, Moray had died of his injuries during the battle, therefore, Wallace took full command of the army and followed Surrey’s army into northern England, where he raided and burned hundreds of villages, committing some of the worst war crimes against civilians of the conflict. In recognition of his position, Wallace was declared the Protector of Scotland, serving as the regent for King Balliol.
Disgraced William Wallace
The glory and fame Wallace accumulated during 1297 did not last long, however. Next year, Edward personally invaded Scotland with a huge army, meeting Wallace at Falkirk. Unfortunately, Wallace decided to give battle in July 1298. This overconfidence proved fatal. Although the famous Scottish schiltron formations managed to bear the onslaught of English cavalry, archery fire from the Welsh mercenaries in Edward’s army eventually forced the formations to break. Since the Scottish archers were much fewer in number and lacking in technology compared to the English Longbow, they failed to respond adequately and one of the cavalry charges finally crushed the Scottish army. Historians have suspected that Wallace was lacking in terms of battlefield tactics, although there is no doubt in his charisma and other leadership skills. Wallace himself was so ashamed of this defeat that he fled his command and resigned as the Protector in favour of Robert the Bruce in September.
Sometime after the Battle of Falkirk, William Wallace left for France, and possibly Italy, to request foreign intervention, but failed to convince King Philip IV of France. Wallace soon returned to Scotland to continue his guerrilla activities against the English occupation. His last known participation in an action took place in 1304, when he once again managed to avoid capture. Eventually, however, Wallace was betrayed by John de Menteith, a Scottish noble loyal to the English King, and captured by English authorities on 5th August 1305 at Robroyston, near Glasgow. After a show trial, Wallace was convicted of treason and war crimes against English civilians. Wallace simply contended that he could only have been a traitor if he was ever subject to the English King in the first place, which he was not. Afterwards, Wallace was tortured and executed in the brutal fashion common in Medieval Europe and his separated limbs and head were displayed in various towns around the occupied Scotland. Although his career was relatively short, Wallace’s spirit of resistance would make him a recognisable icon of Scottish nationalism centuries later. In the nineteenth century, a tall tower called the Wallace Monument was erected at the site of the Battle of Stirling Bridge to honour his bravery and patriotism.