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Freedom's Sword: Scottish Wars of Independence

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Wallace, Bruce and the Wars of Independence, 1286-1328 (Collins Scottish History S.)


William Wallace, Scottish Hero

William Wallace entered into the history books during a fairly calm and affluent period of time period in Scottish history. For generations, Scottish monarchs had ruled successfully, and now, in the 1270s, King Alexander III had dealt shrewdly with the England's more powerful king, Edward I. The Clan was shattered by a tragic series of events. Bereaved of his three children in the course of five years, the Scottish king himself died in a riding accident in 1286, leaving only his two-year-old niece as successor to the Scottish crown. Following tradition, six Scottish nobles were appointed as guardians to rule in her name until she came of age. But four years later the sickly infant died.

Two main contenders now emerged for the Scottish throne: John Baliol and Robert Bruce (Robert the Bruce's grandfather). The Scottish nobles asked England's king, Edward - who until now had proven a friendly neighbour - to choose the successor. Unfortunately, Edward had his own agenda. He deliberately delayed his decision, hoping a lengthy power vacuum would stir up internal Scottish rivalries. He was proved right, and managed to persuade most Scottish nobles that to avoid civil war, they should hand over all Scotland strategic castles to English garrisons for safe keeping until the decision was made. By the time he finally ruled in Baliol's in November 1292, Scotland was effectively under English military occupation. Baliol became John I of Scotland, buy any illusions of becoming sovereign king were soon shattered, and he was made to pledge allegiance to King Edward. No longer an independent nation, Scotland was now little more than a divided province under a weak, English-appointed king.

But when, four years later, Edward went to France, Baliol plucked up the courage to sign a secret treaty with the French and invaded northern England. Unfortunately, his hopes of winning back independence misfired. The outraged King Edward left France immediately, and headed north to crush the Scots. The result was the worst atrocity in English history. On March 30 1296, 20 000 men, women and children - virtually the whole population of the borders town of Berwick - were massacred. Edward and his army then headed north to and routed the Scottish army at Spottiesmuir near Dunbar, leaving John to seek humiliating peace in an attempt to save his throne and his life. But Edwards response was to strip Baliol of ho his crown, finally exiling him to France where he later died.

Scotland's humiliation did not stop there. Edward removed the Stone of Destiny from Scone, placing it in Westminster Abbey. In August 1296 every Scot of any standing was forced to swear allegiance to Edward, and sign the "Ragman Roll". Conspicuous of any by his absence was the name Sir Malcolm Wallace, the head of the little known family of small landowners in Aryshire and Renfrewshire. In the words of the medieval Scottish chronicler Fordon, it was then that Sir Malcolm Wallace's younger brother, William Wallace "raised his head".

The details of Wallace's birth are shrouded in mystery. The second son of a minor knight, William Wallace is believed to have made his entrance around 1272. The Renfrewshire village of Elderslie boasts a monument near the remains of a house where he's said to have been born, but some historians insist he was born in Ayrshire, where he spent his youth.

Although they owned land in Renfrewshire and Ayrshire, the Wallace family was not wealthy, and lacked the connections to rise through social or military ranks. William's only chance of "getting on" was through training for the clergy, and he's thought to have studied at Paisley Abbey.

At the age of 19, the young student priest was shattered by a tragedy that changed the course of Scottish history. His father Sir Malcolm was killed - according to legend, by an English knight named Fenwick at Louden Hill in Ayrshire. This was 1291, the early years of Edward's covert occupation of Scotland, and the cruel slaying of his father was enough to fuel William's hatred of the English occupiers.

Late that year, William had his first encounter with the English authorities. While staying with his uncle in Kilspinsie, he visited nearby Dundee. The occupying soldiers, who took pleasure in "noising up the locals", saw a likely target in the young visitor. But they'd picked on the wrong Scotsman. Their harassment provoked a heated argument. Swords were drawn, and to escape, William stabbed and killed an English soldier called Selby. Unfortunately for William, Selby's Father happened to be the town's constable.

William was a marked man. From that day on he was an outlaw, and all hopes of progressing through the priesthood vanished. He returned to his home in Riccarton, but the English forces were on his scent, and Wallace went into hiding.

Only sketchy details remain of the next five years, when William lived a Robin Hood-like existence in the vast forest of southern Scotland. Wallace clan members believe many of the legends of Robin Hood were stolen by English fable writers who had heard of William's real life exploits. But the Scots had story tellers of their own. The most famous, Blind Harry, relates how William killed three English soldiers on the River Irvine after they tried to steal his fishing catch. He tells of Wallace's imprisonment in Ayr, which he escaped by tricking prison guards into believing he was dead.

After the Scottish defeat at Dunbar in 1296 and the tightening of the English occupation, his exploits became more daring and akin to modern day guerrilla activity. Along with 50 colleagues, he raided an English baggage train at Louden Hill and avenged his fathers death by killing the English knight Fenwick. Heading north, he captured a small English fortress in Gargunnock near Stirling, and then narrowly escaped death after running into a superior English force near Perth.

This period was the making of William Wallace the leader. As his reputation grew, men from all over the country came to join him in the forest. Many were drawn from the ranks of the dispossessed - including some criminals - although others were members of his family. But some came from farther afield, including Stephen of Ireland who was to become one of Wallace's closest allies. Wallace's attraction must have been immense. For starters, he was one of the few Scots actively fighting the English. And at six foot six - twelve inches taller than the average for the time - he must have appeared superhuman. By all accounts, he was also handsome and good company. In the desolate era of occupied medieval Scotland, to serve with Wallace would have been risky, but it had its attractions.

By 1297 the English grip on Scotland was becoming increasingly tenuous, as the common people grew to resent their new rulers. William Wallace was a local hero - particularly in the fortified town of Lanark, where he took mass. Here, he also courted a young local heiress named Marion Braidfute. Whether they married is unclear, but there is no doubt over Marion's tragic fate.

Hearing that Wallace was taking mass in the town, Heselrig, the English sheriff of Lanark, sent men to capture the young outlaw. Wallace fought them off, escaping through Marion's house. Outraged by his men's failure, Heselrig had Marion put to death. Wallace's reaction turned from a local hero into a national one. With a hand-picked band of his closest allies, he returned to town in disguise, and stormed his way into the sheriff's home. Heselrig died on the spot, along with his son and countless English soldiers as the fortress was set aflame.

Wallace had upped the stakes. The slaying of a figure like the sheriff of Lanark - the epitome of English authority - was bound to bring reprisals. But as news of his actions spread through the burghs and villages of Scotland, the people took the young man to their hearts. There was no turning back for Wallace. His earlier exploits may have been shrugged off by the authorities struggling for their own security, but now he was a marked man at the highest level. At least he was no alone. 300 miles away on the Black Isle in north east Scotland, the young nobleman Andrew Murray had already raised his family standard over Ormande Castle in defiance of the English occupation. Murray, with a higher social standing than Wallace, had triggered widespread revolt over all the north east. And after capturing Inverness and Elgin, his forces were quickly moving through Speyside, spreading panic among pockets of English soldiers.

News of the simmering revolt reached King Edward. At first he dismissed the unrest as little more than a local difficulty. But as he prepared to leave for France, the reports became more troublesome and ordered his senior commander, the Earl of Surrey, and treasurer Cressingham to assemble an army at Berwick. Their mission: to crush the rebellious Scots once and for all.
In early July, a seemingly overwhelming English army of 50,000 men crossed the border. Meanwhile, Wallace continued to harry the occupying forces in Ayrshire and Lanarkshire, then headed north to defeat a group of pro-English Irish mercenaries at Loch Dochart, Argyll. But this minor victory was overshadowed by a major disaster. After capturing Ayr in late June, the English encountered the main Scottish army encamped near Irvine. Divided and lacking in confidence, the Scottish nobles managed to avoid a fight by pledging "good behaviour".

It looked as though the war was over. As the Scottish army abandoned the field, all that remained was a mopping up operation for the visitors. But then, Wallace and Murray entered the fray. Wallace swept north, capturing Dunnottar castle before linking up with Murray near Aberdeen in early August, and delivering most of the territory north of the River Forth into Scottish hands Wallace organised the siege of Dundee, the last remaining English northern fortress before he and Murray both headed south.

Meanwhile, the English garrison slept soundly in the knowledge that their seemingly invincible army was heading north for Stirling. Built high on the bank of the River Forth, Stirling Castle was the most strategically important fortress in medieval Scotland. Held by the English, it guarded the one bridge over a river that divided lowland Scotland from the Highlands. As Wallace and Murray's rebel army gathered north of the river, Surrey's highly trained and heavily armoured forces arrived at the foot of the castle. With control of the fortress, the bridge and an immense army, the English commanders must have felt invincible. Some even thought they'd win without a fight.

On the evening of September 10, a peace deal looked likely when two Scottish nobles, James the Steward and the Earl of Lennox, arrived at the English camp to discuss terms. Although they almost certainly lacked the backing of Wallace or Murray, their appearance helped reinforce the English complacency.

At dawn on September 11, the English army began crossing the narrow bridge, supremely confident that the Scots had either gone home or would soon turn and flee. At this point, something like a medieval farce began to unfold. The ageing Earl of Surrey had overslept, and without their commander, the Englishmen who had crossed the river returned to the southern bank to await orders. When Surrey finally awoke, his first action was to hold a military parade, and then conduct a war council to agree tactics.

Deciding to give the Scots one more chance, he sent two Dominican friars to discuss terms directly with Wallace. They returned with his famous reply:
"Tell your people that we have not come here to gain peace, but are prepared for battle, to avenge and deliver our country."

Shocked by this display of defiance, some of the senior commanders lost a little of their confidence and became nervous of crossing such a narrow bridge. Sir Richard Lundie offered to lead a group of 500 hundred knights across the river at a nearby ford in order to outflank the Scots. "My Lords," he pleaded, "if we go onto the bridge we are dead men." But to no avail. Enough time had been wasted, argued Cressingham, the cost-conscious treasurer. And once again, the army began crossing the hopelessly narrow wooden bridge.

What happened next must have taken astonishing nerve on the part of the Scots. Hidden among the trees on the high ground just west of the Abbey Craig, Wallace and Murray watched as the English members grew on the northern bank of the river. An hour passed, until around half the English force had crossed the bridge. Then they gave the order to attack.

The English panicked as the Scots appeared to charge at them from nowhere and everywhere. A section of light cavalry seized the bridge and the heavily armoured English knights found it impossible to manoeuvre on the marshy ground around the river. What followed was a rout.

Half the English army stood helpless on one side of the river, while the others were trapped and massacred on the other side by the Scots fighting with passion and vengeance in their eyes. The bridge collapsed under the sheer weight of numbers, and the English soldiers who were not slain drowned as they tried to swim back across the Forth.

The rest of the English army couldn't get out of Stirling quick enough. Surrey was among the first to leave the field, as the rampant Scots crossed the river by the nearby fords which the English commander had chosen to ignore. As the English fled, Lennox and the Steward appeared on the field with their own cavalry, safely flying the Scottish flag now that the English had been decisively defeated.

The English dead totalled more than 10,000 that day and many more would die or be captured before the demoralised army escaped back over the border. Scottish casualties were remarkably low - except in one important respect. Andrew Murray had been seriously wounded. He never recovered, and died a few weeks later.

William Wallace emerged as the victor of Stirling Bridge. But we should not forget his co-commander, as an equal partner in his nation's spectacular and unexpected triumph. As well as a crushing blow to the English, Wallace's victory at Stirling was humiliating for Scotland's ruling elite. Where they had failed miserably, the lowly son of an obscure knight had spectacularly succeeded.

Still only 25, Wallace was acclaimed the Guardian of Scotland in a short ceremony, probably held at Perth. Despite his lack of experience in government, he brought outstanding leadership qualities to the job of ruling a war-torn, dived country.

After capturing Dundee and ensuring the English army was back over the border, he invaded northern England, harrying northern castles and seizing much-needed supplies for a war-crippled , starving Scotland. As the winter set in, he returned home to prepare for the inevitable English invasion next summer.

Back in Scotland, Wallace received a knighthood - and began a social revolution. He scrapped feudalism for a system modelled on Roman and Greek military traditions, where rank was based on ability rather than caste. Soldiers were rigorously drilled in Schiltrom , Wallace's unique method of training light infantry to withstand head-on cavalry assaults.

None of this endeared the new guardian to the Scottish nobility, but his popularity meant there was little they could do about it. The English army was another matter. By June, a huge force of 100,000 men had assembled at Berwick, this time under King Edward's direct command. A head-on clash would have been suicidal, and Wallace returned to the guerrilla tactics he had perfected during his years as a shadowy outlaw.

As the English marched north, the Scots adopted a rigorous scorched earth policy, destroying everything of possible use to the invaders. The threat of starvation began to loom large for Edward's army, and by mid July, at Kirkliston near Edinburgh, the King seriously considered turning back. But when a scout spotted the Scottish army encamped near Stirling, Edward force-marched his men toward Linlithgow while the Scots slept.

Had Wallace withdrawn at this stage, starvation may well have forced the English to head back home. He must have known however, that they would certainly return. And perhaps he thought the chance to face down a starving English army on the battlefield was too good to miss.

On the morning of July 22 1298, the Scots lined up just south of Falkirk to face Edward's mighty army. Wallace addressed his troops with his immortal rallying cry:

"I have brought you into the ring, dance as best you can".

The English onslaught began. 3000 heavily armoured cavalry charged, but the schiltroms held firm. The demoralised Welsh archers refused to fight, but the Lancastrian archers unleashed the full force of their deadly longbows on the tightly packed Scottish infantry.

This was a crucial moment. A decisive charge by Scotland might still have scattered the archers, but the 500 Scots cavalry, under the command of senior Scottish noblemen 'Red Comyn', left the field. Encouraged by the sight of the Scottish cavalry withdrawing, the Welsh archers came back into the fray, and joined the slaughter of the defenceless Scottish army. The slaughter turned into a rout and Wallace, devastated, withdrew with his few surviving men.

Why Comyn's cavalry left the field without a fight has never been established. Some suggest his men simply lost courage in the face of the mighty English force. But treachery and jealousy are more likely motives. The nobles who had been humiliated by Wallace's heroic success now had a chance to turn the tables. Very few Scottish nobles were amongst the dead who littered Falkirk that evening.

100 miles away on his Carrick estate, the young Robert Bruce did nothing. According to one legend, dramatised in the movie Braveheart, he took the field on the English side and only later intervened to help Wallace escape.

Although this is unlikely, it is certain that he did not fight for Scotland. His ambitions to claim the crown would not have sat easily with a decisive victory by a lesser knight who occupied the Guardianship in the name of the exiled King John.

Shortly after the battle of Falkirk, the Scottish nobles were back in charge, although the wars with England continued. Wallace left for France, visiting Paris and Rome in the hope of winning international support for Scotland's independence.

Around 1302 he returned to a war-ravaged country, and appears to have led Scots forces in a few minor battles. But Edward increasingly held the upper hand as on by one, the Scottish nobility surrendered into "the King's peace". Considering his brutal reputation, the "hammer of the Scots" dealt leniently with nobles like Bruce and Comyn.

But not with Wallace.

In July 1305, the outlawed Wallace travelled to Glasgow, hoping to meet with Robert the Bruce. For more than a month, he patiently waited in a secret hide-out at Robroyston, on the city's outskirts. But Bruce did not appear - and Wallace was betrayed. Edward had hired a team of Scottish knights to track down the rebel who continued to defy his authority. Sir John Menteith was first to the quarry. No-one knows how he learned of the hiding place, but Wallace was captured in his sleep, put in chains, and taken to London.

Edward had planned his revenge with care. Wallace appeared in front of an English court charged with countless offences against the Crown, including the murder of the Sheriff of Lanark eight years before. There could only have been one verdict.

Yet the charge of treason brought against Wallace was difficult to fathom. Granted he had fought Edward's authority for over 14 years - but he'd never once pledged his allegiance. In fact, this was precisely why Edward had been so determined to hunt Wallace down. Unlike so many others, Wallace could not be bought, and as long as the 35 year-old fighting legend remained alive, Edwards grip on Scotland would be tenuous.

Wallace's sentence was horrific. He was taken from the courtroom and dragged naked through the filthy streets of London for locals to jeer and jostle the Scottish giant who defied their king for so long. Near modern day Smithfield, Wallace was executed by the most brutal method devised by medieval justice.

First he was hung. Then while half alive, he was stretched out on a rack. As he gasped for a last breath, he watched as his stomach was burned in front of him. Finally, he was beheaded, and his body quartered.



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