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Sir William Wallace (c. 1272-76 – 23 August 1305) was a Scottish knight, landowner, and patriot who is known for leading a resistance during the Wars of Scottish Independence.
Along with Andrew Moray, he defeated an English army at Stirling, and became Guardian of Scotland, serving until his defeat at the Battle of Falkirk. After several years in hiding, Wallace was eventually found in Scotland and handed over to Edward I of England ("Longshanks"), who had him executed for treason.
Wallace was the inspiration for the poem, The Acts and Deeds of Sir William Wallace, Knight of Elderslie, by the 15th-century minstrel, Blind Harry and the 1995 film Braveheart. Read Full Bio >>
There is little which is certainly known of William Wallace's immediate family. The Wallace family may originally have come from Shropshire as followers of Walter Fitzalan (died 1177), High Steward of Scotland and ancestor of the Stewart family. The early members of the family are recorded as holding lands including Riccarton, Tarbolton, and Auchincruive in Kyle, and Stenton in Haddingtonshire.
The seal attached to a letter sent to the Hanse city of Lübeck appears to give his father's name as Alan. His brothers Malcolm and John are known from other sources. Alan Wallace may appear in the Ragman Rolls as a crown tenant in Ayrshire, but this is uncertain. There is no contemporary evidence connecting William Wallace with either Elderslie in Renfrewshire or Ellerslie in Ayrshire, although both areas were linked to the wider Wallace family.
At the time of Wallace's birth, which cannot be securely dated, King Alexander III ruled Scotland. His reign had seen a period of peace and economic stability, and he had successfully fended off continuing English claims to sovereignty. In 1286 Alexander died after falling from his horse. None of his children survived him. The Scottish lords declared Alexander's four-year-old granddaughter, Margaret (called "the Maid of Norway"), Queen. Due to her young age, the Scottish lords set up an interim government to administer Scotland until Margaret came of age. King Edward I of England (popularly known as "Longshanks," among other names) took advantage of the instability by arranging the Treaty of Birgham with the lords, betrothing Margaret to his son, Edward, on the understanding that Scotland would preserve its status as a separate kingdom. Margaret, however, fell ill and died at only seven years of age (1290) on her way from her native Norway to Scotland. A number of claimants to the Scottish throne came forward almost immediately.
With Scotland threatening to descend into a dynastic war, the "leading men" of the realm invited Edward's arbitration — as a powerful neighbour and significant jurist he could hardly be ignored. Before the process could begin, he insisted, despite his word to the contrary, that all of the contenders recognize him as Lord Paramount of Scotland. After some initial resistance, all, including John Balliol and Robert Bruce, the chief contenders, accepted this precondition. Finally, in early November 1292, at a great feudal court held in the castle at Berwick-upon-Tweed, judgement was given in favour of John Balliol having the strongest claim in law. Formal announcement of the judgement was given by Edward on November 17.
Although the outcome of the Great Cause had been both fair and legal, Edward proceeded to use the political concessions he had gained to undermine the independence of Scotland and to make King John's position difficult. Balliol broke his promise and renounced his homage in March 1296 and by the end of the month Edward stormed Berwick-upon-Tweed, sacking the then-Scottish border town. He slaughtered almost all of his opponents who resided there, even if they fled to their homes. In April, the Scots were defeated at the Battle of Dunbar (1296) in Lothian and by July Edward had forced Balliol to abdicate at Stracathro near Montrose. Edward then instructed his officers to receive formal homage from some 1800 Scottish nobles (many of the rest being prisoners of war at that time), having previously removed the Stone of Destiny, the Scottish coronation stone, from Scone Palace, and taken it to London.
Blind Harry invented a tale that Wallace's father was killed along with his brother John in a skirmish at Loudoun Hill in 1291 by the notorious Lambies, who came from the Clan Lamont.
According to local Ayrshire legend, two English soldiers challenged Wallace in the Lanark marketplace regarding his catching of fish. According to various historians, including John Strawhorn, author of The History of Irvine, the legend has Wallace fishing on the River Irvine. He had been staying with his uncle in Riccarton. A group of English soldiers approached, whereupon the leader of the band came forward and demanded the entire catch. Even after Wallace offered half of his fish, the English refused such diplomacy and threatened him with death if he refused. Wallace allegedly floored the approaching soldier with his fishing rod and took up the assailant's sword. He set upon the entire team of English soldiers with stereotypical success. The argument had escalated into a brawl and two English soldiers were killed. Blind Harry places this incident along the River Irvine with five soldiers being killed. The authorities issued a warrant for his arrest shortly thereafter. According to a plaque outside St. Paul's Cathedral in Dundee, however, William Wallace began his war for independence by killing the son of the English governor of Dundee after he had made a habit of bullying Wallace and his family. This story perhaps has more weight because it is speculated that Wallace may have attended what is now the High School of Dundee, and spent some of his time growing up in the nearby village of Kilspindie.
Wallace's activities before 1297 are completely undocumented, but Harry states that Wallace was under the protection of his uncle Ronald Crawford, Sheriff of Ayrshire. He used this relationship to his advantage and there are unconfirmed reports of his early career as a petty criminal.
Wallace enters history when he killed William Heselrig, the English Sheriff of Lanark, in May, 1297. According to later legend this was to avenge the death of Marion Braidfute of Lamington — the young maiden Wallace courted and married in Blind Harry's tale. Soon, he achieved victory in skirmishes at Loudoun Hill (near Darvel, Ayrshire) and Ayr; he also fought alongside Sir William Douglas the Hardy at Scone, routing the English justiciar, William Ormesby. Cities such as Aberdeen, Perth, Glasgow, Scone, Dundee, and all lands north of the Firth of Forth were freed by Moray, not Wallace.
In 1296-97, he was allegedly involved in an event which would later come to be known as Wallace's Larder. He is said to have lured the English occupiers of Ardrossan Castle out of their holding and into the town whereupon he set upon them one at a time. After successfully retaking the castle, Wallace had the bodies of the English thrown into a tunnel which can still be seen today.
Supporters of the growing revolt suffered a major blow when Scottish nobles agreed personal terms with the English at Irvine in July. In August, Wallace left Selkirk Forest with his followers to join Andrew Moray at Stirling. Moray began another uprising, and their forces combined at Stirling, where they prepared to meet the English in battle.
As Wallace's ranks swelled, information obtained by John Graham prompted Wallace to move his force from Selkirk Forest to the Highlands, though there is no historical evidence to suggest that Wallace ever left the Lowlands area of Scotland other than his visit to France and his trip to the scaffold in London.
On 11 September 1297, Wallace won the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Although vastly outnumbered, the Scottish forces led by Wallace and Andrew Moray routed the English army. The Earl of Surrey's professional army of 3,000 cavalry and 10,000 infantry met disaster as they crossed over to the north side of the river. The narrowness of the bridge prevented many soldiers from crossing together (possibly as few as three men abreast), so while the English soldiers crossed, the Scots held back until half of them had passed and then killed the English as quickly as they could cross.
Stirling Bridge as of 2006.
A pivotal charge, led by one of Wallace's captains, caused some of the English soldiers to retreat as others pushed forward, and under the overwhelming weight, the bridge collapsed and many English soldiers drowned. Harry claims that the bridge was rigged to collapse by the action of a man hidden beneath the bridge. The Scots won a significant victory which boosted the confidence of their army. Hugh Cressingham, Edward's treasurer in Scotland, died in the fighting. Cressingham's skin was allegedly tanned and used to make trophy belts and sporrans by the Scots. William Crawford led 400 Scottish heavy cavalry to complete the action by running the English out of Scotland. It is widely believed that Moray died of wounds suffered on the battlefield sometime in the winter of 1297, but an inquisition into the affairs of his uncle, Sir William Moray of Bothwell, held at Berwick in late November 1300, records he was "slain at Stirling against the king."
Upon his return from the Battle of Stirling Bridge, Wallace was knighted along with his second-in-command John Graham and his third-in-command William Crawford, possibly by Robert the Bruce, and Wallace was named "Guardian of Scotland and Leader of its armies".
In the six months following Stirling Bridge, Wallace led a raid into northern England. His intent was to take the battle to English soil to demonstrate to Edward that Scotland also had the power to inflict the same sort of damage south of the border. Edward was infuriated but he refused to be intimidated.
A year later, Wallace lost the Battle of Falkirk. On 1 April 1298, the English invaded Scotland at Roxburgh. They plundered Lothian and regained some castles, but had failed to bring Wallace to combat. The Scots adopted a scorched-earth policy in their own country, and English quartermasters' failure to prepare for the expedition left morale and food low, but Edward's search for Wallace would not end at Falkirk.
Wallace arranged his spearmen in four "schiltrons" — circular, hedgehog formations surrounded by a defensive wall of wooden stakes. The English gained the upper hand, however, attacking first with cavalry, and breaking up the Scottish archers. Under the command of the Scottish nobles, the Scottish knights withdrew, and Edward's men began to attack the schiltrons. It remains unclear whether the infantry firing bolts, arrows and stones at the spearmen proved the deciding factor, although it is very likely that it was the arrows of Edward's bowmen.
Either way, gaps in the schiltrons soon appeared, and the English exploited these to crush the remaining resistance. The Scots lost many men. Wallace escaped, though his military reputation suffered badly. John Graham was killed and William Crawford became Wallace's second. According to one account, during his flight Wallace fought and killed Brian de Jay, master of the English Templars in a thicket at Callendar.
By September 1298, Wallace had decided to resign as Guardian of Scotland in favour of Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick, and John Comyn of Badenoch, ex-King John Balliol's brother-in-law. Bruce became reconciled with King Edward in 1302, while Wallace spurned such moves towards peace.
According to Harry, Wallace left with William Crawford in late 1298 on a mission to the court of King Philip IV of France to plead the case for assistance in the Scottish struggle for independence. On their trip down the English coast, the small convoy ran into the infamous pirate Richard Longoville, also known as the Red Reiver for his red sails and ruthless raids. Hiding in the hold of the ship while Crawford and a small contingent of men sailed, Wallace surprised the pirates as they boarded the ship. Longoville was captured and taken to Paris where the Scots convinced Philip to grant amnesty so that Longoville could prey on English ships. This last story is one of many recorded by Blind Harry for which there is no evidence. Harry also invented a major action against Edward I at Biggar, which, though often cited, never actually occurred.
In 1303, Squire Guthrie was sent to France to ask Wallace and his men to return to Scotland, which they did that same year. They slipped in under the cover of darkness to recover on the farm of William Crawford, near Elcho Wood. Having heard rumours of Wallace's appearance in the area, the English moved in on the farm. A chase ensued and the band of men slipped away after being surrounded in Elcho Wood. Here, Wallace took the life of one of his men that he suspected of disloyalty, in order to divert the English from the trail.
Wallace evaded capture by the English until 5 August 1305 when John de Menteith, a Scottish knight loyal to Edward, turned Wallace over to English soldiers at Robroyston near Glasgow. Wallace was transported to London and tried for treason and the execution of civilians and prisoners at Westminster Hall where he was crowned with a garland of oak to suggest that 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." With this, Wallace asserted that the absent John Balliol was officially his king. Wallace was declared guilty.
Following the trial, on 23 August 1305, Wallace was taken from the hall, stripped naked and dragged through the city at the heels of a horse to the Elms at Smithfield. He was hanged, drawn and quartered — strangled by hanging but released while still alive, emasculated, eviscerated and his bowels burnt before him, beheaded, then cut into four parts. His preserved head was placed on a pike atop London Bridge. It was later joined by the heads of the brothers, John and Simon Fraser. His limbs were displayed, separately, in Newcastle upon Tyne, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Stirling, and Aberdeen.
William Wallace Statue, Aberdeen.
A plaque stands in a wall of St. Bartholomew's Hospital near the site of Wallace's execution at Smithfield. Scottish patriots and other interested people frequently visit the site and flowers often appear there.
The Wallace Sword, which supposedly belonged to Wallace, although some parts are at least 160 years later in origin, was held for many years in Loudoun Castle and is now in the Wallace National Monument near Stirling.
Comprehensive and historically accurate information was written about Wallace, but many stories are based on the wandering 15th-century minstrel Blind Harry's epic poem, The Acts and Deeds of Sir William Wallace, Knight of Elderslie, written around 1470. Historians either reject almost all of the parts of Blind Harry's tale, or dismiss the entire composition. Although Blind Harry wrote from oral tradition describing events 170 years earlier, giving rise to alterations of fact, Harry's is not in any sense an authoritative description of Wallace's exploits. Indeed, hardly any of Harry's work is supported by circumstantial evidence including names from land charters, the Ragman Roll, and religious and public office holders and their archives. While not all details are consistent, the general flow is consistent with contemporary histories. Several modern writers note that the Bishop of St. Andrew's did commission a friar to write a first-hand account of Wallace's exploits, but the existence, let alone the disposition of this manuscript is not known.
Blind Harry's poem Barns of Ayr, for example, describes a mythical incident when 360 Scottish nobles, led by Wallace’s uncle, Ronald Crawford, were summoned by the English to a conference in Spring of 1297. As each passed through a narrow entry, a rope was dropped around his neck and he was hanged. The incident as described by Blind Harry does appear in the 1995 film Braveheart with even less accuracy, placing the event in the childhood of Wallace and ignoring the murder of his uncle Crawford. Nevertheless, Ronald Crawford did die at this time and his son replaced him as Sheriff of Ayrshire, giving some credence to the story.
In the early 19th century, Walter Scott wrote of Wallace in Exploits and Death of William Wallace, the "Hero of Scotland", and Jane Porter penned a romantic version of the Wallace legend in The Scottish Chiefs in 1810.
G.A. Henty wrote a novel in 1885 about this time period titled In Freedom's Cause. Henty, a producer of Boys Own fiction who wrote for that magazine, portrays the life of William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, The Black Douglas, and others, while dovetailing the novel with historical fiction.
Nigel Tranter wrote a historical novel titled The Wallace, published in 1975, which is said by academics to be more accurate than its literary predecessors.
William Wallace appears in the real-time strategy game Age of Empires II: Age of Kings, as the Scots were the focus of the game's training campaign. Although in the game Wallace is not present at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, he appears at the Battle of Falkirk to aid the player. In the game, the Scottish ended as victors at Falkirk, unlike the actual historical battle.
Perhaps the best-known account of the life of William Wallace is the 1995 film Braveheart, directed by and starring the actor Mel Gibson, written by Randall Wallace, and filmed in both Scotland and Ireland. This film was a commercial and critical success, winning five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. The film contains many major historical inaccuracies (see Braveheart#Historical inaccuracies)
In March 1998 Iron Maiden released the album Virtual XI which contained the track "The Clansman", loosely based on the life of William Wallace. Iron Maiden bassist Steve Harris states that the song was inspired by the films Braveheart and Rob Roy, starting first as two separate songs before they were melded into one. << Less Bio
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