William Wallace - ‘The Wallace’ - is world famous; a national hero who fought and died to free Scotland from English rule.
William is thought to have been the younger son of a Scots landowner, Alan Wallace. In the Scotichronicon, a chronical dating around the end of the 14th century, Walter Bower describes Wallace as:
“...a tall man with the body of a giant, cheerful in appearance with agreeable features, broad-shouldered and big-boned... pleasing in appearance but with a wild look, broad in the hips, with strong arms and legs, a most spirited fighting-man, with all his limbs very strong and firm.”
In May 1297 Wallace was in Lanark. It is said that he was visiting his wife, the beautiful Marion Braidfute, who he had married in secret. Lanark Castle was held by an English sheriff, Sir William Heselrig. When Heselrig’s soldiers learned that Wallace was with Marion they surrounded him. Wallace escaped but Marion was captured by Heselrig. The English sheriff had Wallace’s wife put to death.
That night Wallace and his men made their way back to Lanark Castle under cover of darkness. Wallace broke into Heselrig’s bedchamber and hacked the English sheriff to death.
In 1297 leaders of an uprising against Edward’s rule ignited across Scotland. The ‘noble’ revolt died almost before it had begun but in the north-east Andrew Moray led a Scots uprising in a successful campaign against English-held castles.
Bishop Wishart met with Wallace in Glasgow. The Lanercost Chronicle condemned Wishart for supporting Wallace and conspiring against King Edward:
“Robert Wishart, bishop of Glasgow, ever foremost in treason conspired with the Steward of the Kingdom, named James, for a new piece of insolence, yea, for a new chapter of ruin. Not daring openly to break their pledge to the king, they caused a certain bloody man, William Wallace, who had formerly been a chief of brigands in Scotland, to revolt against the king and assemble the people in his support.”
Wallace fought a guerrilla war against English rule. He led a growing uprising to Scone, from where they ruled. When William Ormesby, the English Justiciar in Scotland, heard that Wallace was coming he fled with his troops to Edinburgh then to the safety of England. Wallace laid siege to the English-held Dundee Castle.
Edward I turned his attention from war with France to the troublesome Scots. He ordered John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, and Hugh de Cressingham, the English Treasurer of Scotland, to raise an army and destroy the uprising.
As the English army marched north Wallace broke off his siege, sent a messenger to Andrew Moray and prepared to meet the Edward’s army head on at Stirling.
The Battle of Stirling Bridge
Edward I’s army under the command of John de Warenne and Hugh de Cressingham planned to cross the River Forth at Stirling. The narrow wooden bridge offered the safest river crossing as the Forth widened to the east and the treacherous marshland of Flanders Moss lay to the west.
William Wallace and Andrew Moray had arrived at Abbey Craig, north of Stirling, before the English army. They watched from the hilltop as the English force - made up of English, Welsh and Scots knights, bowmen and foot soldiers - made camp to the south of the river. The English army had between 200 to 300 cavalry and 10,000 foot soldiers to the Scots’ 36 horsemen and 8000 foot.
John de Warrene gave orders for the English army to cross Stirling Bridge to face the Scots next morning. At dawn the English foot soldiers began to cross the bridge but John de Warrene was still in bed in Stirling Castle. He arrived late to the field and recalled his men.
Two Dominican friars were sent as envoys to negotiate the surrender of the Scots with Wallace and Moray. They were told by Wallace in no uncertain terms to return to John de Warrene and to:
“Tell your commander that we are not here to make peace but to do battle, defend ourselves and liberate our kingdom. Let them come on, and we shall prove this in their very beards.”
John de Warrene called a Council of War but ignored the advice of Scots knight Richard Lundie who said ‘My Lords, if we go on to the bridge we are dead men.’ Hugh de Cressingham urged the Earl of Surrey to cross and quickly finish the Scots. Over the next few hours the English heavy cavalry - knights and mounted men-at-arms - led by Hugh de Cressingham slowly made their way over the wooden bridge and waited in the loop of the River Forth. Wallace and Moray watched and prepared their men for battle.
The Scots seized the moment. Wallace and Moray sent their spearmen down to attack. The Scots cut off the escape route back across the bridge and attacked the trapped knights, bowmen and foot soldiers. The mounted knights floundered in the marshy ground and Edward’s army was forced back to the deep waters of the Forth. In an hour the Scots had slaughtered the trapped men. Some English knights managed to fight their way back across the bridge. A few foot soldiers swam to the south bank of the river but the rest were cut down.
John de Warrene had the wooden bridge set on fire and cut down to keep the Scots from following as he retreated to Berwick. The hated Treasurer of Scotland, Hugh de Cressingham, was flayed alive by the Scots. It is said that Wallace had some of his skin fashioned into a belt for his sword. Andrew Moray was seriously wounded during the battle. He never recovered, dying from his wounds two months later.
The Battle of Falkirk
The defeat of the English army at Stirling Bridge had enraged Edward and united the English nobility against the Scots. In summer 1298, King Edward himself marched north at the head of a massive war machine. Edward had over 1500 knights and mounted men-at-arms and more than 12,000 veteran foot soldiers. His army also brought a devastating new weapon - the English longbow - and a host of English and Welsh archers.
Edward’s journey north was not easy. The Scots had undertaken a ‘scorched-earth’ policy; leaving nothing for Edward’s army to eat or drink. Among Edward’s knights was Brian Le Jay, the former Templar Master in Scotland at Balantrodoch. He was put in charge of restoring order after the Welsh threatened to mutiny and fought with English soldiers.
When Edward received word that the Scots were camped near Falkirk he led his army to face them. The Scots were vastly outnumbered and lacked the heavy cavalry of the English. On the morning of 22 July 1298 Wallace’s men formed four massive schiltrons and held their ground. Between the schiltrons were Scots bowmen under Sir John Stewart of Jedburgh. A small force of Scots knights under Sir John ‘Red Comyn’ waited on horseback.
Wallace is famously said to have called out to his men, ‘I have brought you to the ring - now dance if you can.’
The Welsh refused to attack so Edward sent in two groups of mounted knights. They wheeled around the schiltrons and charged but couldn’t break them. Knights fell as their horses were impaled on Scots spears. At that moment, when they should have joined the fight, the Scots nobles turned their horses and rode away from the battlefield.
The English knights turned on the Scots bowmen, cutting them down and killing their leader Sir John Stewart. Edward recalled his cavalry and ordered his archers to loose. The English longbow was a new and deadly weapon; its iron-tipped arrows could pierce chainmail and padded armour. Flight after flight of arrows rained down on the Scots and began to break the schiltrons. Edward sent his knights to finish the Scots.
William Wallace managed to escape from the carnage. The surviving Scots fled into the woods as Edward’s army hacked down the uprising. Edward watched the rout but his army was too hungry and badly supplied to continue the campaign.
The execution of Wallace
But Wallace had become the hated enemy of King Edward I. Edward put a price on his head and ordered the Scots nobles to deliver Wallace to him.
In 1299 Wallace left Scotland and sailed to France on a diplomatic mission to the French King Philip the Fair. Scotland needed allies and Wallace called on Philip to honour his treaty with the Scots. Philip gave Wallace a letter of introduction to Pope Boniface VII. John Balliol had been handed over to the Pope by Edward I. Wallace hoped to see the King of Scots restored to his throne but it was not to be. Balliol was released by the Pope into the protection of the French king but he never returned to Scotland.
Wallace sailed back to Scotland and it is thought that he joined Sir John Comyn and Sir Simon Fraser as they defeated three English armies in a single day at the Battle of Rosslyn on 24 February 1303.
On 3 August 1305 Wallace was captured in Robroyston, north of Glasgow. He was taken by Sir John Menteith, the uncle of Sir John Stewart who had fallen at the Battle of Falkirk. Menteith had been made sheriff of Dumbarton by Edward. From Dumbarton Castle the captive Wallace was taken south to Carlisle then paraded, bound hand and foot, to London.
Wallace was tried in Westminster Hall on 23 August 1305. A list of his crimes, including murder and treason, were read out. Wallace denied that he was guilty of treason - he had never sworn allegiance to Edward. The verdict and the punishment were decided before the trail began. Wallace was to be given a traitor’s death - he was to be hanged, drawn and quartered.
William Wallace was strapped to a wooden hurdle. He was dragged though the streets to the Elms at Smithfield. There he was hanged from a gallows but cut down while he still lived. He was disembowelled before his head was hacked off and his body was cut into pieces.
The quarters of Wallace’s body were sent to Berwick, Newcastle upon Tyne, Stirling and Perth to show the price of treason. Wallace’s head was spiked above London Bridge.
Edward thought this humiliating death would be the end of the matter - that Wallace would be forgotten. He was wrong.