Who was William Wallace, the man who inspired such hatred by his English contemporaries but such devotion and adoration amongst the Scots seven hundred years after his death? William Wallace was the Scottish knight who became one of the main leaders during the First War of Scottish Independence as portrayed in the 1995 Academy Award winning film we have all come to know and love, Braveheart. While parts of the film are fictionalized for dramatic purposes as Hollywood tends to do, several aspects of film are historically accurate. Wallace did lead one of the first acts of defiance against the English when he assassinated William de Heselrig, the English Sheriff of Lanark, in May 1927. Some say this was an act of revenge for how the sheriff had treated Wallace’s lover but what we know for certain is that Wallace would not submit to the English occupation and rule of Scotland by the English King, Edward I also known as Longshanks. We also know that on September 11, 1297, Wallace won a great victory against the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. He did this at a time when his forces were greatly out number and when it was unheard of for dismounted infantry to defeat superior mounted horse cavalry. After Wallace’s victory he was named The Guardian of Scotland. Previously, there had been groups of barons, bishops and lords who were collectively honored as the Guardians, but only Wallace was given this title alone as the sole Guardian of Scotland.
After years of fighting the English who had larger armies and greater resources along with internal political strife within Scotland, Wallace was eventually defeated by the English. Wallace evaded capture by the English until August 5, 1305 when a Scottish knight loyal to King Edward, turned Wallace over to English soldiers. Wallace was transported to London, then taken to Westminster Hall, where he was tried for treason and for atrocities in war, "sparing neither age nor sex, monk nor nun." He was 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.” Wallace lived in brutal times and as a result often used brutality to fight his enemies. It is no surprise then that Wallace’s execution is one of the most brutal ever witnessed. Following the trial, on August 23, 1305, Wallace was taken from the hall to the Tower of London, he was stripped naked and dragged four miles through the city streets at the heels of a horse to Smithfield. He was hanged, drawn and quartered, that is he was strangled by hanging, but released while he was still alive, emasculated, eviscerated and his bowels burned before him, beheaded, then his body was cut into four parts and then sent to four corners of the English empire. His preserved head was placed on a pike atop London Bridge for the English people to jeer at.
Wallace’s story is both tragic and uplifting. Tragic that while Wallace was undoubtedly a great hero to the Scottish people and their fight for independence, internal politics ultimately lead one of his own countrymen to betray Wallace and turn him over to his enemies the English and tragic circumstances of his execution and death. His story is uplifting because of Wallace’s unconquered spirit and his willingness to fight and never yield no matter the odds or forces arrayed against him. To get a true measure of the man listen to Wallace’s own words and remember these words were spoken by William Wallace not when it was easy or convenient but when his life and those of his fellow countrymen hung in the balance:
“We come here with no peaceful intent, but ready for battle, determined to avenge our wrongs and set our country free. Let your masters come and attack us we are ready to meet them beard to beard”.
“I cannot be a traitor, for I owe him (Edward) no allegiance. He is not my Sovereign; he never received my homage; and whilst life is in this persecuted body, he never shall receive it. To the other points whereof I am accused, I freely confess them all. As Governor of my country I have been an enemy to its enemies; I have slain the English; I have mortally opposed the English King; I have stormed and taken the towns and castles which he unjustly claimed as his own. If I or my soldiers have plundered or done injury to the houses or ministers of religion, I repent me of my sin; but it is not of Edward of England I shall ask pardon”.
“My Son, Freedom is best, I tell thee true, of all things to be won. Then never live within the bond of slavery”.