William Wallace’s birth and early life are very much shrouded in mystery. Some sources state he was the younger son of a minor Scottish land-owner, Malcolm Wallace, born in Elderslie near Paisley. Sir Malcolm was documented to have had three sons, Malcolm Jr, William and John. However, based on his seal on a letter sent to King Philip IV, a Crown tenant, Alan Wallace was his father, he was from the similar sounding Ellerslie near Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, and this is backed up by Alan Wallace’s signature on the 1296 Ragman Roll, which William refused to sign. His age is also disputed with a birthdate range of 1270 to 1276. The Wallace family whichever is correct are presumed to have emigrated North from Wales, from which their name – Waleys – is derived, in the twelfth century by request of King David I, establishing a resettlement of good Norman families from Wales to Scotland, following the conquest some 100 years before. His seal bears the insignia of the archer, leading some historians to theorise that his military experience may have been gained as an archer in Edward’s own army. However, again it could equally be said that this was a mere nod to his probable Welsh heritage.
Following the notion that William was the son of Sir Malcolm Wallace, and his wife Margaret de Crauford, whose father was Sir Reginald de Crauford, Sheriff of Ayr, it seems that Wallace would have received his education from two of his uncles who went on to become priests. He was apparently well-educated in Latin and French and judging by later actions received military training of some sort, possibly in an active role, as well as the necessary skills to accompany a soldier’s career; namely horsemanship, and weapons, particularly archery and swordsmanship.
Wallace was not perceived as a prominent threat to the English, or indeed anybody until a series of events beginning around 1296. Even when these events took place, he was disregarded for the most part as an outlaw, nothing further. But if we look a few years earlier, to 1291, when it is thought his father was killed in a skirmish with English troops, coupled with his allegiance to John Balliol as the rightful King of Scotland in the matter of the “Great Cause” following the deaths of Alexander III and his heir, Margaret of Norway, led to his growing distrust of the English. Further incidents occurred, including the murder of the son of the English constable of Dundee, and two English soldiers at Irvine, who tried to divest a man of his freshly caught fish, both these incidents are attributed to Wallace, although unproven, which gave him his outlaw title.
In 1296, when Balliol was once again forced to pledge his allegiance to Edward and the Ragman Roll was ordered to be signed by 1800 of Scotland’s nobles, Wallace distanced himself somewhat from Balliol. At this point in time, Robert the Bruce, Earl of Carrick, an upcoming member of the aristocracy whose grandfather had contended the throne against Balliol, openly contested the Scottish cause, and stood for Edward. Edward further angered the Scots by imposition of punitive taxes and demanded the Scottish nobles raised armies of their men, to fight for the English cause against the French. At this point Balliol withdrew his allegiance, and summoned the nobles to join him, in opposing Edward. Robert the Bruce, along with his father the 6th Lord Annandale, refused to answer the summons, and their stronghold at Carlisle was attacked by Balliols own forces. Edward granted safety to the Bruces, but Balliol used this defiance to strip the Earl of Carrick and Lord Annandale of certain family’s lands in favour of his own nephew John Comyn.
In 1297, Wallace’s wife, Marion Braidfute, was murdered by the English Sheriff of Lanark, William Heselrig in her home in retaliation for her harbouring Wallace and assisting his escape following a street-fight between Wallace and his associates and several of the Sheriff’s men. It has been theorised that being the daughter of a wealthy man, Braidfute stood to inherit a considerable amount of property, and Heselrig intended to force her marriage to his son. Hearing of the secret marriage between Marion and Wallace infuriated him. When Wallace heard of his wife’s death, he returned to Lanark Castle in the middle of the night, gained entry to Heselrig’s bedchamber and hacked Heselrig to pieces. His head was said to have rolled across the floor and down the stairs in front of his son, who was later to join the English army and be killed, trying to avenge his father.
The incident was soon publically known, and caused a surge in the Scottish cause. As uprising increased, Wallace and his men fought and won several minor skirmishes with the English, including routing the English Regent, William Ormesby, from Scone Palace, alongside of Sir William Douglas. Wallace’s maternal uncle, Sir Ronald Crauford was hung as punishment for his part in the uprisings, and Wallace allegedly retaliated by locking in the English Garrison at Ayr and torching the building, burning everybody to death.
In September 1297, with a widespread uprising in the North, led by the young Andrew Moray (Murray) and Wallace leading his followers from the South, the two factions joined to face the English at Stirling Bridge. Heavily outnumbered, Murray and Wallace lay in wait for the English forces to cross the narrow bridge. Once halfway across, they started to pick off the English, causing panic. A frontal attack by Hamish Campbell, forced the soldiers at the front to turn back, creating chaos on the bridge. As many troops were trapped, unable to move, the extra weight caused the bridge to collapse. Many of the English drowned in the river, struggling to stay afloat under the weight of weapons, horses and drowning comrades. Those who made it to the banks were too weak to defend themselves and were picked off by the waiting Scottish.
Sadly Andrew Moray was severely injured during the fight, and was to die a few weeks later of his injuries. Wallace’s second in command, John Graham also died, leaving William Crauford to take his position. It has been said that if Moray had not have succumbed to his injuries, the Scottish would have found their hero in him, instead of Wallace, as it was Moray’s leadership, and tactics that won the day. However his death left the cap of glory to Wallace to claim. Robert the Bruce later knighted Wallace for his part, and proclaimed him Guardian of Scotland for the deposed King John Balliol, who was by now imprisoned in the Tower of London. Wallace subsequently announced to Europe, Scotland’s independence, and began a series of measures that would reform policy. He went on a “cleansing” mission to England, getting as far as York, in his search for traitors to the cause, and his hunt for supplies. Many chroniclers and later historians would claim that Wallace used the reason of war being a brutal game to allege Wallace’s random butchery in the months that followed, although Scottish historians and the William Wallace society dispute this claim, instead promoting Wallace’s supposed policy of sparing women, children and people of the cloth.
The following year, Wallace and his supporters suffered a blow to their cause when they engaged the English once again at Falkirk, following Edward’s campaign in the Borders. On this occasion, Wallace was solely responsible for the Scottish tactics, and placed his stock in Schiltrons, defended by spearmen against the English Cavalry, backed up by Welsh Archers. Wallace’s forces were decimated, and the Scottish lost their faith in his capabilities. Wallace subsequently resigned his guardianship and was sent instead as an envoy to France to enlist the support of the French court, against the English. During his absence, the Bruce and his rival, John Comyn were appointed joint Guardians of Scotland, despite their loathing of each other, later to be joined by William Lamberton as mediator, who had been appointed Bishop of St Andrews under Wallace.
It has been alleged that Robert the Bruce, at this point was still drawn to the English cause, and may have fought at Falkirk on the English side, however none of the Bruces are recorded on the noble’s roll for this battle, and the Bruce may indeed have sat that battle out. It is stated that he later laid waste to his own castles in Ayr and Annandale to prevent their use as garrisons by the English.
Wallace returned to Scotland in 1301-1302 (sources vary) with assurances that the French would stand up for the Scottish cause. However by the following year, the French reneged on their agreement following their own conflict with Flanders, for which they needed English support. The Bruce along with other Scottish nobles agreed to swear allegiance once again to Edward, in return for a truce. Wallace was the only dissenter. In 1304, Wallace was declared an outlaw to the nation and a traitor, which made him fair game for capture, dead or alive, in return for a reward. Anyone found harbouring him or assisting him would also be declared a traitor. This move served to make Wallace very unpopular with all but his closest, most loyal allies. As a result of his failure at Falkirk, and the lack of French support that he had supposedly gained, most of the Scottish nobles now saw Wallace as an embarrassment and a problem that needed to be dealt with, permanently.
In August 1305, Wallace was captured by Sir John Menteith, a Scottish knight loyal to Edward, near Glasgow, and turned over to the English. He was taken to London where, despite not requiring a trial, due to his charge of treason, Edward wanted to disgrace Wallace in the eyes of his supporters and the Scottish public, believing that this would sever their allegiance to him. At Westminster Hall, now part of the Houses of Parliament, he was tried as an outlaw and a traitor, some of the charges included the repeated large-scale massacre of innocent women, children babies, nuns and monks. Refused a lawyer, jury or a defence, Wallace nonetheless loudly stated that he could not be considered a traitor, as he had never sworn allegiance to the English Crown. His rightful king was the imprisoned John Balliol. Wallace was found guilty and sentenced to be taken for immediate execution.
On the 23rd August 1305, he was stripped naked, and wrapped in a tanned ox-skin to prevent serious injury which could lead to his unscheduled demise, before being tied to the tails of horses and dragged through the streets of London. Upon reaching Smithfield, He was taken up to the gallows, and hung until he was close to strangulation before being cut down. He was then laid out, and drawn. His entrails were held up for him to see before being cut free and thrown on a burning brazier, he was also emasculated as part of the process, symbolically preventing the continuance of his family line as well as humiliating him. Finally his heart was torn from his body, causing his death, and thrown to the fire. His body was then cut into four pieces, each piece being sent to a different town of the North, where they were nailed in prominent positions to serve as a warning to potential traitors to the English crown, and to prevent his journey to the afterlife – the belief was no whole body, no soul, no salvation. Wallace’s head was boiled in pitch and placed on a spike on Old London Bridge.
Edward believed that Wallace’s death and the oath from the remaining Scottish, would see the end of the conflict and rebellion in the name of Scottish Independence. He was wrong. The following year, the cause would once again be taken up, this time by Robert the Bruce himself, in retaliation for Edwards’s subsequent misuse of his Scottish territories. Edward died in 1306, as did John Comyn (at the hands of the Bruce) and Robert was crowned King of Scotland, when it was clear that John Balliol would not be returning to Scotland. William Wallace’s captor Sir John Mentieth, the man who went down in history as the betrayer of William Wallace, was standing alongside King Robert when the Declaration of Arbroath was signed.
Now finally to dispel those lovely myths. William Wallace’s death and the taking up of the cause by the Bruce, led directly to his place as Martyr for Scotland. The two however were not best pals, may have fought briefly for the same side, and one did not betray the other. William Wallace never cried freedom, nor did he paint his face blue before battle. William did not die simultaneously with Edward – Edward died suddenly of dysentery in 1307 on his way north to engage the Scottish. Robert the Bruce was not forced to betray Wallace on the orders of his father, who did not have leprosy. Lord Annandale died in 1304, before Wallace was captured, and spent as much of his time fighting on the opposite side to his son, as Wallace did. Last but not least, although it is entirely possible he met her during his diplomatic mission to the French court of Philip IV following his resignation of the guardianship of Scotland, William Wallace never had an affair with Isabella of France, wife/future wife of Edward II. During his visit there, Isabella would have been a hefty three to six years of age. By the time she removed to England for her wedding she was twelve years old, and Wallace had been dead for two years.
It is highly unlikely that Wallace was remembered as a martyr until long after his death, considering the relatively minor and short-lived involvement he had with the fight for Scottish independence. Largely forgotten by the majority of the nation, and having passed into the obscurity of history, it was mainly through the 1995 film Braveheart that the legend of William Wallace was reborn. His story was told in the works of Blind Harry some 170 years after his death, in a book that was so popular, it outsold everything but the Bible. However much of the contents are since debated and refuted. Sorry Scotland.
It is fair however, to say that William Wallace helped start the fight for the cause, and he remained true to it. He can be remembered as a man who was willing to sacrifice his life for that cause; the only leading man of the era who refused to give up his belief in the right to a free Scotland, and never swore allegiance to the King of England.