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Many people know the name of William Wallace. In fact, in the film Braveheart, we see the story of a man who was broken and embittered by his tragic encounter with the English. The truth is, however, that just because we have heard the traditional account of William Wallace doesn’t mean we actually know the real story.
Yet, the truth about William Wallace is that his life was entirely shrouded in mystery. Historians are baffled by the lack of information about the man and the few historical sources that we have on his life tend to be either conflicting or a little grandiose. His story becomes far more interesting once we realize that his background, motives and aspirations were almost entirely a secret.
To understand the story of William Wallace, we must take a look at the political climate of Scotland in 1286. King Alexander of Scotland had recently died due to an accident and now there was a great clamor for who would take over the Throne of Scotland. As the King’s only heir had died in 1290, there was no secure lineage to the throne, leading many different competitors to come out boldly and claim the throne for their own. This quickly grew to a boiling point where the question of civil war began to rise up in Scotland.
The King of England, Edward the I stepped in after being requested to arbitrate by the Scottish Nobility. He would choose who would take over the Throne. Edward had a condition, however. He wanted to be recognized the Lord Paramount of Scotland, to which they agreed. A court decided who would be the rightful heir to the throne and John Balliol was selected.
Yet Edward had very little interest in allowing the Scots to live free. He levied taxes upon them, which they accepted well enough, but eventually he also demanded that the Scots provide a military service in the war effort against France. The response to Edward’s demand was a renouncement of paying homage to the King of England by the Scots and an attempt to secure an alliance with France to wage war against the English.
Upon learning about such a decision, King Edward moved his forces into Scotland and sacked the city of Berwick, seizing control of it and demand John Balliol surrender the rest of his territories. The Scots fought back and at the Battle of Dunbar were utterly crushed and John Balliol abdicated the throne, earning him the nickname of “empty coat.” It was this point that the English occupation of Scotland became a reality and the nation was more or less conquered by King Edward.
This created tension within Scotland but with their king’s leadership failing to inspire a great fight against the British and the occupation of their lands, there was not much that they could do without a leader. It would seem that as long as the English stood strong, they would ultimately be subjugated by King Edward.
This is where the story of William Wallace begins. No one knows about his background, where he grew up or what the start of his life had been like. The poet known as Blind Harry chronicled much of William Wallace’s life, but Harry’s descriptions were somewhat generous and most historians now hold that the majority of things he said about William Wallace were somewhat untrue or exaggerated.
A minor noble without any real background to speak of, William Wallace came on the scene in 1297, a year after Scotland had been invaded by the British. Wallace’s first actions became the spark that would go on to set off the powder keg that was the political climate of Scotland. His first act was an assassination.
Rebellion was nothing new to the Scottish people, in fact even before William Wallace began to fight, there were a great many who were leading raids against the British occupations. William’s part in these rebellions up until Lanark was unknown. Lanark was the headquarters of the British Sherriff William Heselrig. Heselrig was in charge of administering justice and during one of his courts, William Wallace rallied up a few soldiers and promptly killed Heselrig and all of his men. This was the first time that William Wallace was mentioned in history, and while his action wasn’t the first act of rebellion in Scotland, it started his career as a warrior immediately.
The reason for why William assassinated this man is unknown. The myth was that Heselrig had ordered the execution of Wallace’s wife and William was looking for revenge, but we don’t have any historical evidence of such a thing. Either William had coordinated with other nobles in an act of uprising or he had chosen to act alone, regardless the message to the English was very clear. The War of Scottish Independence was still alive.
Wallace was a brutal man. He was able to sufficiently build enough forces to lead an army against the English and after a few extensive campaigns, he and his ally, Andrew Moray took control of Scottish lands. With the Scottish moving quickly and retaking land, the English grew nervous about the security of their sole remaining territory in Northern Scotland, Dundee. In order to secure the city, they began to march soldiers toward Dundee. The only problem was that they would need to cross the Stirling Bridge to get there, and that was exactly where Wallace and his forces were waiting.
The English forces, led by Earl of Surrey, were in a precarious position. They would need to cross the river in order to reach their objective, but the Scottish resistance fighters on the other side would engage as soon as they crossed. After much debate and discussion, the English made the decision to cross the bridge, despite the fact that it would be too narrow for more than two horsemen to cross side by side.
William Wallace’s forces were smart. They didn’t attack immediately, but rather they waited until enough enemy soldiers crossed over the bridge and would attack swiftly, moving in from the high ground with spearmen to route the cavalry. Despite the fact that Surrey’s forces were numerically superior, Wallace’s strategy cut the first group off from the bridge and the English forces were promptly slaughtered. Those who could escaped did so by swimming in the river to get away.
This immediately killed any of Surrey’s will to fight. He lost his nerve and despite still having a main force in his control, he ordered the bridge to be destroyed and for his forces to retreat. The idea of cavalry losing to infantry was a shocking concept and this defeat shattered the English’s confidence against the Scots. This would be a major victory for Wallace and he would continue in his war campaign.
His brutality, however, still showed at this battle. Hugh Cressingham, the treasurer to the King of England, had been slain in the battle and Wallace along with the other Scots, flayed his skin and took pieces of Hugh’s flesh as a token, displaying his hatred for the British.
It was after this daring attack that Wallace was appointed as Guardian of Scotland by the deposed King John Balliol. Wallace’s strategies were different from the traditional viewpoint on warfare. He utilized terrain and guerilla tactics to fight against his opponents, leading his soldiers to fight using ambush tactics and taking opportunities where he saw them. The English forces were numerically superior, but with Wallace’s tactics, it didn’t really matter when sheer force alone wouldn’t win a fight.
Eventually William Wallace was knighted for his actions. He was regarded as a hero in Scotland and his quest to expel the English occupation was seen as just and righteous by the nobles. As he conducted his campaign, the English mustered up forces and led a second invasion of Scotland.
King Edward’s forces were dispatched in a large number, tens of thousands of them, in the hopes of being able to draw William Wallace out and fight him. Wallace was content, however, to refuse to engage in battle, waiting until the large army had exhausted their supplies to strike. As the English forces marched, taking back territory, their morale decreased significantly as the supplies dwindled. Riots broke out within the English forces and they were forced to quell them internally. The Scots were patient, waiting for the English to retreat, for that was when they intended to strike.
A crack in the plan was found, however, when King Edward discovered the hiding spot of Wallace and his forces. King Edward quickly mobilized his forces and moved them toward Falkirk, where they fought fiercely against William Wallace. It was at this battle where the tide of William Wallace’s career would turn, however, as he was unable to lead his men to victory against Edward’s forces. Rather they were quickly overpowered by the vastly superior English bowmen. These bowmen did an excellent job of breaking Wallace’s defenses and Edward’s superior discipline allowed for him to keep his cavalry in line until eventually the Scottish broke into disorder. Then a charge was made and the Scots were routed. William Wallace barely escaped with his life.
It was this time that Wallace’s reputation as a military leader was hit hard. While they were skilled fighters, in an open battle against experienced soldiers, they didn’t have a chance. Wallace stepped down from his role as Guardian of Scotland and decided that he would journey to France, hopefully to secure the French King’s assistance in the War for Scottish Independence.
There isn’t much else known about his time abroad other than the fact that he did meet with the French King. It has been suggested that he might have met with the Pope but there was no evidence that such a meeting ever happened. Regardless of what his goals were in his time abroad, when Wallace returned home, he would resume his actions of aggression against the English.
William Wallace’s career and life would soon come to an end however, when Sir John de Menteith, a Scottish noble, betrayed William and turned the once Guardian of Scotland over to the English. Wallace’s life would not last much longer, for after he was captured he was quickly brought before Westminster Hall and was tried for his crimes. He was charged with treason, to which he merely replied “I could not be a traitor to Edward I, for I was never his subject.” He was found guilty and was sentenced to death.
To say that William Wallace’s execution was horrible is an understatement. So hated was he by King Edward I that when it finally came time to order the death of the man, the punishment would be far more severe than most executions. William Wallace was stripped naked and dragged through the streets of London by horse. He was hanged but they didn’t allow for the hanging to kill him, rather they waited until he was barely on the edge of consciousness before the cut him down. Then, he was disemboweled, stabbed, cut and emasculated. Then, after such torture and humiliation had been done, he was beheaded. His body was cut into several pieces and his head was stuck on a pike atop the London Bridge. Such a type of execution says a lot about a man. To his friends, Wiliam Wallace as a hero, befitting of praise and glory. To his foes, William Wallace deserved one of the most brutal executions possible.
His execution was a nightmarish affair, but his legacy of being a hero to Scotland would forever live on in their history. The war for Scottish Independence raged on for quite some time after that. Even with the fierce fighting that Wallace had taught to his people, they never were able to get their footing again. Ultimately, the Scottish would never be able to regain their independence, something that they had fought so hard to protect. Despite these failures, William Wallace’s legacy as a fierce fighter, loyal leader and valiant warrior live on to this day.