William Wallace is one of Scotland’s greatest national heroes and patriots, most notably honored for inflicting a famous defeat on the English army at Stirling Bridge to free Scotland from English rule.
During the Wars of Scottish Independence, Wallace was one of the men who led the charge to rebel against Edward I’s English forces. Wallace’s accomplished battle skills eventually led to his appointment as Guardian of Scotland.
William Wallace was born in the 1270s in Renfrew (near Paisley) and believed to be the son of a small farm owner of lower social origin. Very little is known about his early years and there are significant periods in his life for which there are no reliable sources.
To better understand Wallace’s motives, it is interesting to understand a bit of history leading up to his revolt.
In 1294 Edward, King of England declared war on France and demanded that the Scottish king, John Balliol should join his army. Balliol refused to support Edward, and with the support of the Scottish parliament, Balliol signed a treaty with France. This meant that the Scots were now at war with the English.
In mid-August of 1296, Edward marched through eastern and central Scotland. Edinburgh Castle surrendered in only a week. As Edward’s army approached Stirling, the defenders abandoned Stirling Castle and Edward took control.
Balliol was forced to confess that he had revolted against the English, had to give up his kingdom and was sent to England to be held as a prisoner. This allowed Edward I of England to take advantage of the succession crisis in Scotland by imposing himself as ruler of Scotland with an English administration. Within months, Scottish unrest was widespread, further sparking the War for Independence.
It was well-known that Wallace’s motivation for rebelling against English forces a year later was a reaction to the conquest of Scotland By Edward I. Edward had humiliated the Scottish king and kingdom. He imposed the English government upon the Scots and English officials were ordered to raise men and supplies for Edward’s planned campaign in France.
Other motives for Wallace’s rebellion may have been more personal. One legend speaks of Wallace having a wife that was killed by an English soldier. Another legend speaks of Wallace having a wealthy girlfriend named Marion Braidfute whose house Wallace had frequented. Marion was murdered and her house burnt to the ground. Rumors speculated that Marion was murdered at the hands of, or at the order of William Heselrig, Sheriff of Lanark and an unpopular English authority.
In May 1297, Wallace attacked the town of Lanark, killing the English sheriff. Unrest amongst the Scots quickly became an all-out rebellion against the English, and Wallace became their leader.
Perhaps Wallace’s motive to kill Heselrig was largely due to Heselrig having been an unpopular English authority or perhaps his disdain for English authorities heightened after the murder of Marion Braidfute. Maybe a little of both.
For his violent act at Lanark, Wallace was made an outlaw and became hunted by the English. Instead of going into hiding, Wallace set off to pursue them.
Men gathered to join Wallace and he began to drive the English out of Fife and Perthshire. More and more Scots were joining Wallace, including the Scottish chief Andrew Murray. Murray brought his own infantry and cavalry and assumed command with Wallace. Murray had already seized most of the castles in the north of Scotland being held by the English.
In September 1297, Wallace was victorious against the English forces at the Battle of Stirling Bridge.
Stirling Castle held an advantageous position overlooking the bridge and River Forth. The holder of the castle commanded the main route to the north of Scotland. Edward I and his English forces had captured the castle the previous year.
Greatly outnumbered by the English, Wallace and Murray positioned their army just beyond the bridge on Abbey Craig. On the early morning of September 11, 1297, the English army advanced, two by two, across the bridge, then their commander, Earl of Surrey, recalled them. Apparently, Surrey had overslept but once awake, recalled the soldiers and instead sent two friars to invite Wallace to surrender. Wallace sent back his answer: “We are not here to make peace, but to fight for our country’s freedom. Let the English come on: we’ll meet them beard to beard”.
The Scots held position and when about half the English were over the bridge, Wallace sounded his horn, sending the entire Scottish army charging down the hill. Five thousand English cavalry and infantry were now trapped in a loop in the river. Surrey and his soldiers watched as their English comrades were slaughtered and many drowned after being pushed into the water.
Wallace gained an overwhelming victory by capturing Stirling Castle, and for the moment Scotland was nearly free of occupying forces.
Defeated, Surrey desperately escaped to Berwick.
Wallace and Murray, only in their twenties, took control of the Scottish government and signed themselves Commanders of the army of the Kingdom of Scotland.
Murray died a few weeks later from a wound he received at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. This enraged Wallace and further prompted his expedition into England to punish them. Wallace went on to invaded northern England and devastated the counties of Northumberland and Cumberland. He took the towns of Edinburgh, Roxburgh, and Berwick from the English. Leading his fierce Scottish soldiers, Wallace ravaged and burnt English villages, killing and looting along the way.
When Wallace tried to invade Durham, he was faced with blizzards and ice that was unusual for those parts. Wallace and his men decided they had enough and returned to Scotland.
Upon returning to Scotland early in December 1297, Wallace was knighted and proclaimed guardian of the kingdom, ruling in the name of Scotland’s deposed king, Balliol.
Meanwhile, Edward was still determined to have things his way. He ordered his army, which included ten-thousand heavily armored cavalry, to meet him in Roxburgh in June 1298.
The English hunted for the Scottish army, but when food stocks were getting low, Edward prepared to retreat to Edinburgh and possibly abandon the campaign. Then, Edward received a report from two Scottish earls, who were faithful to the English cause, that Wallace and his army were camped eighteen miles away, near Falkirk.
Edward finally found his enemies. On July 22, 1298, English troops advance towards Wallace’s army at Falkirk, Stirlingshire. Wallace and his men were defeated by Edward’s archers and cavalry at the battle known as the Battle of Falkirk.
Wallace escaped and little is known of his immediate movements. In December, he resigned from his guardianship position and was succeeded by Robert Bruce (later King Robert I) and John Comy “The Red”.
There is some evidence that Wallace went to France in 1299, seeking support for the Scottish cause. He returned to Scotland in 1303, but for those four years, nothing is documented of his activities.
Most of the Scottish nobles submitted to Edward in 1304. Robert Bruce had accepted a truce with Edward I and John Comyn came to terms with the English as well.
While most leading Scots were allowed to make peace with their new lord, Edward excluded Wallace from these terms and the English king offered a large sum of money to anyone who killed or captured him. Edward made several Scots agree to capture William and hand him over, as part of their pardons.
The English continued on a relentless pursuit to capture Wallace. On August 5, 1305, Wallace was seized in or near Glasgow by a Scottish noble, John Stewart of Menteith, and handed over to Edward’s officials. Later that year, William Wallace was tried and charged with treason and crowned with a garland of oak to suggest he was the king of outlaws. He responded to the treason charge, “I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject”.
Edward most likely used Wallace as an example to Scots, displaying the price of resistance, however, he had also created a powerful martyr for the cause of Scottish independence.
Following the trial, on 23 August 1305, Wallace was taken to the Tower of London where then stripped naked and dragged through the city at the heels of a horse to the Elms at Smithfield. He was hanged, released while he was still alive, beheaded, then cut into four parts. His preserved head (dipped in tar) was placed on a pike atop London Bridge. His limbs were displayed, separately, in Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling, and Perth.
In 1869 the Wallace Monument was erected close to the site of his victory at Stirling Bridge, on top of Abbey Craig, near Stirling. Wallace’s sword, which was held for many years in Dumbarton Castle, is now in the Wallace Monument.