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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Riley

William Wallace: Braveheart and beyond

Updated: Aug 12, 2020

It's the late 13th century and Scotland is in the throws of a succession crisis. After king Alexander III died in 1285 with no surviving male heirs, Edward I of England saw an opportunity to assert himself as the supreme overlord of the British isles. Edward backed John Balliol, the great-great-great-grandson of Scottish king David I over the favourite of the Scottish lords, Robert Bruce. Edward had John installed as King of the Scots, and quickly set about controlling every aspect of Scottish government, irritating the lords and forcing John to choose between his native people and the foreign power controlling him, John turned on Edward leading to an invasion and subsequent defeat to the English. With the south of Scotland well and truly in the hands of the English, the country was in open revolt against the evil Edward I and his puppet lords. Now enters a new player, William Wallace.

Portrait of William Wallace SOURCE: The Stirling Smith Art Gallery & Museum

Scottish Robin Hood

Little is known about the early years of Wallace’s early life, born sometime around the year 1270 to a minor knight with the only semi-credible contemporary source was a chap called ‘Blind Harry’, Not a great name for observing history. One thing that is certain about William Wallace is that he was never called Braveheart, that title is actually attributed to Robert the bruce, the grandson of the afore mentioned Bruce who would go on to become king of the Scots. Wallace is somewhat of a ‘Robin Hood’ type character, with a patchwork story making his lineage and subsequent exploits hard to place but, what is not difficult to understand is the effect Wallace would have on Scotland in the 1290s. The first certain act carried out by Wallace was in May 1297 where he violently killed William de Heselrig, the English High Sheriff of Lanark, potentially over a women who’d taken Wallace’s fancy but, this may have been added as some embellishment by Blind Harry. Wallace spent the rest of the summer of 1297 raiding up and down the English held parts of Scotland but, Wallace’s revolution took a hard blow when most of the Scottish nobles he was raiding with submitted to the English, due to the potential Repercussions of active rebellion against a king like Edward I.

Along side Wallace, there was Andrew Moray, a northern landowner, who like Wallace, had started to gather a band of patriotic Scots ready to taketh right to the English. Attacking English lords and property, forced Edward’s hand, forming the second invasion force of Scotland in just 2 years, Edward was determined to crush the rebellion that was quickly gathering strength. Wallace and Moray had quickly amassed a large following, and were soon at the head of an army some 6,000 men strong, and with Earl John Warenne of Surrey and his large English force under orders from Edward to hunt down Wallace, the two forces would soon face off.

Battle of Sterling Bridge

By September 1297, Warenne had gathered a large English force, made up of thousands of heavy cavalry and the most noblest Hugh De Cressingham leading the vanguard. Wallace's force was made up of light armour spear men, not the most ideal set up for thousands of heavily armoured knights but, nether the less, they prepared for a fight, with the small bridge spanned the river Forth acting as the only way men and material could be ferried over. De Cressingham started to lead the cavalry and men-at-arms over the river full expecting Wallace's men to flee at the sight of such a magnificent army but, Wallace had his spearmen charge the swollen bridge, pinning back the attacking English. As more and more English knights and men-at-arms crashing into the rear of their forward lines, more and more started to fall. The tightly packed bridge completely negated the English numerical superiority and cost them the day, with thousands of men lay dead and dying, Warenne order the bridge destroyed, dooming the men that had managed to get across, in order to save his own skin. Speaking of skin, it is rumoured that when de Cressingham was captured, Wallace ordered he be flayed alive and his skin be used to fashion him a new belt.

A Victorian depiction of the battle, showing the bridge ether collapsing or being destroyed by the English SOURCE:

The battle of Sterling Bridge was a miraculous victory for Wallace and his band of free Scots, cementing his place in Scottish and British history. The English army was far to proud and ignorant of the power and fighting prowess of the Scottish at the time, giving Wallace his greatest victory. Edward I's leadership had been crucial to previous English victories and without him, Wallace and his contemporaries were able to capitalise. The Scots didn't escape unscathed, Andrew Moray, Wallace's fellow patriot was mortally wounded during the fight, later dying of his wounds.

A bridge too far?

With Scotland in his lap, and the English under his boot, Wallace spent the winter of 1297 into the early months of 1298, harassing the north of England, with horrendous stories of his ferocity leaving little to the imagination. No acting as 'Guardian of Scotland' mass killings and destruction took place around Carlisle and other border towns. Edward, back in England after spending time in France, was ready to head up to the north and sort out Wallace once and for all. Moving the government to the city of York, Edward gathered all of his northern lords to discuss the new invasion of Scotland. Over the summer months, Edward marched his new army comprising of welsh, Irish and English soldiers including the soon to be feared longbow men, in hunt of Wallace. Meeting at Falkirk, the heavily outnumbered Wallace was likely brimming with confidence since Sterling Bridge but, Edward was leading his 15,000 strong army personally, and was unlikely to make the same mistakes as his subordinates had done.

On 22nd July 1298 Wallace was finally forced to meet the English, after harassing Edward all the way to Falkirk. Wallace formed his 6,000 men up into four ‘schiltrons’, large circles of troops with their pikes and spears arranged to keep the front rear and both flanks secure from cavalry attacks, with archers in between the large formations, prepared to fend of the mass charge that was common place in 13th century battles. Unlike at Sterling, Edward had his cavalry hold back instead, ordering his infantry to advance slowly over the boggy ground. To compliment the wall of infantry, Edward ordered his archers fire over the heads of the advancing men to provide covering fire for the advance. The archer fire was devastating, raining down on the tightly packed Scots, decimating Wallaces lines. Soon, the order to retreat was called and Edward gave the order for his cavalry to charge into the retreating lines. Over 4,000 Scottish died at Falkirk but, Wallace was able to escape but, his reputation was destroyed. Unlike at Sterling Bridge, Wallace was met by a military genius in the form of Edward I and his luck, had well and truly run out.

The end in sight

Wallace spent the next few years harassing the northern English Lords this time, without the title of Guardian of Scotland, a title that had passed to Robert Bruce, the Future King of the Scots. before long, much of the Scottish nobility had sworn allegiance to Edward who was very much winning the war. and preferred peace over a truly free Scotland.

By 1305, Wallace’s luck had run out. The English propaganda machine had fully turned the Scottish nobility against their hero with John de Menteith, a Scottish knight who had supported Edward through the wars of Scottish Independence, capturing sir William and handed him over to the English forces stationed at Glasgow. William Wallace was taken straight to London where he was placed in the now infamous, Tower of London where he wait for his trial. The trial of Wallace was a complete farce with no chance of the Scottish outlaw making it out alive. There were a plethora of chargers made against him treason and ‘atrocities against civilians in war’, when he issued with the charge of treason he is said to have replied with ‘I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject’. The helped to further his reputation as a figure that stood for a free Scotland but unfortunately, doomed his fate.

On 23rd August 1305, found guilty on all counts, Wallace was dragged naked from the tower by a horse to the gallows at Smithfield. The punishment for treason was particularly violent, Wallace would be hung drawn and quartered. Wallace was hung from his neck but whilst still alive he was cut down, had his man hood cut off and his bowls removed and burned in front of him. Not many would still be conscious by this point but regardless, he was then beheaded and then the body was cut into quarters that were then mailed (yes, they posted him) to the cities of Newcastle, Perth sterling and Berwick. The head of Wallace was placed on a pike and took pride of place on London Bridge for all to see.

The Trial of William Wallace at Westminster by Daniel Maclise (sometime before 1870) SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons

Wallace's legacy

Wallace's gruesome death solidified his cult status as a hero and martyr for the Scottish people, and he would continue to be remembered and feared by both the Scottish and the English. Was Wallace a revolutionary freedom fighter or a terrorist? The point is up for debate but it is safe to say that the story of the Scottish knight has been added to and embellished by both sides of the arguments taking away from the essence of what Wallace stood for. A man who really seemed to put Scotland before anything else, even choosing to make a statement at his trial where lesser men, would have crumbled and begged for his life. Wallace certainly committed his fair share of crimes and awful deeds but, so did his English counterparts. the memorial to Wallace at Sterling, acts as a reminder to the people of Scotland that they don't play second fiddle to their southern neighbour but are in fact a free and noble nation, built on the bodies on men and women like Wallace and Andrew Moray.

I hope you enjoyed this and would love to hear what you think, please leave me a comment and follow me on Instagram @chrisriley_ for more medieval history!

As always, thanks for Reading.

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