Thanks to the 1995 Mel Gibson movie Braveheart, most people are fairly familiar with the name of William Wallace. Unfortunately, thanks to the same film, most people also have a mental picture of him that varies between mildly inaccurate and completely wrong. He was, indeed, one of Scotland’s most iconic freedom fighters… wasn’t he?
The truth is fairly difficult to track down, in large part due to the fact that he lived in the 13th century. Records were iffy at best, and doing even just a little bit of digging uncovers the fact that some of the original sources for many of the well-known “facts” about Wallace’s life were viewed as dodgy right from the beginning. Wallace exists in that strange realm somewhere between historical fact and oft-told legend, which means separating fact from fiction can be tricky at best. We’re going to give it a try.
The misstep of a horse changed the course of history
In order to truly understand Wallace — and why he became such a figurehead for Scotland’s national identity — it’s important to know a little bit about the world he lived in. And this starts with Alexander III.
Alexander III ruled Scotland from 1249 to 1286, after being crowned king at just eight years old. That just sounds like a recipe for disaster, and it nearly was. While he was still a child, rival factions within the country struggled for control of the young king, but when he turned 21, he made it clear that the crown was very much his own to do with what he pleased. And one of the first things he did was to finish what his father had started.
The islands off the coast of his country were under Norwegian control, and within just a few years he had done what his father could not: he got those islands back into Scottish control. Meanwhile, at home, he ushered in something of a golden age for his nation. Trade flourished, and Scotland was on good terms not only with the countries and rulers of the continent but of England, too. The land dedicated to agriculture continued to sprawl, monasteries and abbeys popped up across the country, and these centers of religious learning flourished. Life was, for the most part, surprisingly peaceful.
But, like most good things, it wasn’t going to last.
Alexander first married Margaret and tragically, but she and their two sons were dead by 1283. They had a daughter, too, who married Norway’s King Eirik II and had a daughter of her own. That child — Margaret, the Maid of Norway — was acknowledged as the heir to the throne, but things often don’t go as planned.
The king still wanted a male heir and ended up remarrying. He and Yolande de Dreux, Comtesse de Montfort, tied the knot in 1285, and for a time, it looked as though a male heir was possible. Yolande was pregnant with their first child when Alexander decided to ride from Edinburgh to her side at Kinghorn Castle. He would never finish the journey, and a single misstep by his horse changed history. It was dark, the weather was terrible, and his horse slipped along the cliffside road near Pettycur. Alexander fell, and his body was recovered the following day. Yolande would ultimately lose their only child, leaving the little Maid of Norway as the heir to the Scottish throne.
Six guardians were appointed to watch over Margaret, who was just eight years old. Scotland turned to the English monarchy to help secure her position as their new ruler, and England agreed. Their king, Edward I, drew up a treaty that not only betrothed the little Margaret to his own son — who would become Edward II — but also guaranteed Scottish independence.
In 1290, Margaret, the Maid of Norway, left Bergen and headed to the aptly named St. Margaret’s Hope in South Ronaldsay. And there, she died. She passed away after suffering from severe sea-sickness, and this is where the tale turns. Had Margaret wed Edward II, Scotland and England would have been united — peacefully. Instead, Scotland was left with no immediate ruler and now, England had a claim to stake.
The Wars of Independence and a mysterious hero
Now, historians pretty much agree that everything we just talked about happened like we said. But when it comes to Wallace, things are a little murky. He had already been born by the time Scotland was plunged into the kind of chaos that only comes when an entire nation is left without a clear plan for succession, but there’s no consensus on even the basics, like when and where he was born. The closest historians have been able to get is somewhere around 1270, with both Elderslie and Ellerslie laying claim to the honor of being his birthplace.
While Wallace definitely wasn’t a nobleman, he wasn’t exactly a peasant, either. His father was a knight and a minor landowner, and interestingly, he was likely from a family of fairly recent immigrants to Scotland. His family name, Wallace, comes from “le Waleis”, which means “the Welshman”. It’s thought that he was a descendent of a Richard Wallace who had moved to Scotland alongside the Stewarts only in the 12th century.
What else do we know about his early years? Not much. He was well educated, knew both French and Latin, and that was likely thanks to tutelage from his uncle, who was a priest at Dunipace. Given his later successes on the battlefield, historians have surmised that he had military experience before his rise as a revolutionary, and it’s even been suggested that he fought for Edward I in various Welsh campaigns.
It’s also thought that Wallace had run-ins with the law well before he answered the call of the revolutionaries. It’s even possible that he was known more as an outlaw than any kind of upstanding knight. Wallace took the education that his uncle had begun and headed to Dundee to finish it. According to one story, that’s where he killed the son of an English constable who had insulted him. It’s also believed that he killed several English soldiers in Ayrshire after they confronted him for illegal fishing, and it wasn’t until 1297 that he became something more than a common miscreant.
And this is where we’re going to take a moment for a very important aside. There are only a few instances where a reliable source recorded information about Wallace, and most of those have to do with his two most famous battles, Falkirk and Stirling Bridge, and — spoiler alert — his execution. Aside from that, sources are a little iffy.
In fact, the major source of information on Wallace’s life is a poet named Henry the Minstrel, who was better known as Blind Harry. He was born around 1440, and that means he wrote his epic poem, The Wallace, a full century and a half after the real Wallace’s death. And here’s where things get even more complicated. Blind Harry — who was, indeed, blind from birth — claimed he wrote his epic based on the writings of a John Blair. Blair, he said, was a Benedictine monk who had been close friends with Wallace and who had written a biography of him at the request of a senior bishop. There’s no actual proof this request was ever made, though, even though it’s technically plausible.
To go one step further, there’s no proof that a biography of Wallace ever existed, either, but there is a fascinating story that makes it possible that the manuscript had actually been written. An early version of Blind Harry’s Wallace poem included text by a monk named Arnold Blair, not John Blair. Buried in another manuscript is a title for that work, supposedly written about the Scottish hero, along with a footnote that read, “Vide Cottonian MSS.”
And that’s surprisingly important. The Cottonian Manuscripts were given to the British Museum in 1700 by Sir John Cotton, and only 31 years later, a fire destroyed about a quarter of the manuscripts in the collection. Was Wallace’s biography among them? We have no idea, and that means it’s impossible to trace many of the details of Wallace’s life back beyond Blind Harry.
As if that isn’t confusing enough, there are plenty of details in Blind Harry’s definitive Wallace work that historians have proved to be false. One of the very first assertions Blind Harry makes is that William Wallace was the son of Malcolm Wallace. He wasn’t. In 1297, Wallace wrote a letter to the mayors of the German towns of Lubeck and Hamburg. The letter has survived, along with Wallace’s own personal seal. It shows a hand drawing back the string and arrow of a bow, and it includes a Latin inscription that translates to “William, son of Alan Wallace”.
That calls into question the historical accuracy of one of the most famous and oft-repeated episodes in Wallace’s life. The popularly-told tale is that Wallace had married a woman named Marion, and was visiting the lady and their daughter when English soldiers got wind of his location. He ran and rallied his own men, but Marion was executed in the meantime and cemented his determination to free Scotland from English rule. Did it happen? Maybe, maybe not.
The defiance of John Balliol and Stirling Bridge
The English king didn’t immediately step in to take over rule of Scotland, and instead, he first tried to install a king who he was fairly certain would obey him without question. That was John Balliol, and in all fairness, it was the Scottish lords who asked Edward I to choose a new ruler. Balliol seemed to fit the bill in that he was a descendant of former Scottish king David I, and the English crown also saw him as something of a weak-willed successor who would remember who put him in power — and be eternally grateful for that.
That was in 1290, and things went sideways very quickly. England and France were embroiled in conflict, and Balliol not only refused to support England, but in 1295 he formed an alliance with France. That, of course, didn’t go over well at all.
The following year, Edward marched into Scotland, dethroned Balliol, and took over ruling Scotland directly. Scottish nobles were imprisoned or found themselves beholden to their English rulers, and countless Scottish soldiers were forced to march alongside the English in their campaigns against the French.
Revolt came surprisingly fast, and even as Balliol struggled to reestablish peace through more conventional means, the rebels believed they had an advantage. The English army was fighting France, too, and that meant they had fewer troops to send against Scottish rebels. In 1297, those Scottish rebels kicked off the First War of Independence at Lanark and sadly, exactly what happened is unclear.
Even Lanark’s official history makes it clear that no one really knows just why Wallace chose to gather his supporters at that particular location, but it is known that Wallace killed the occupying Sheriff of Lanark — along with most of his men — and kicked off the rebellion in full. This is, of course, where the story about Wallace’s wife and her execution comes into the tale, but again, some historians believe they’ve outright debunked the idea that she even existed.
Over the next months, Wallace and his rebels hit targets in Dundee, Ancrum, and Scone. Other uprisings were led by Andrew Murray and the MacDougall clan, and on September 11, 1297, things truly came to a head across the River Forth at Stirling Bridge.
The area presented some unique challenges to advancing armies, the most famous of which was very real — the bottleneck that restricted the advancement of the English army. After a series of failed negotiations for peace, the English army — led by the Earl of Surrey — advanced across the river to the northern side. Wallace was already camped there with his troops and had the benefit of high ground; he waited until a large portion of the English cavalry had crossed the bridge to charge with his spearmen, pinning the calvary against the river and slaughtering them wholesale.
Only some of those that tried to flee actually escaped the massacre, and it was a decisive battle that ended with the unraveling of the Earl of Surrey’s coalition army. Where some Scottish lords had marched alongside him — including James Stewart, the High Steward — that changed after Stirling. Stewart not only pulled his men out of the English army, but he attacked the fleeing baggage train to encourage them to leave just a little bit faster.
Among those the fleeing English army left behind was Hugh de Cressingham, the Treasurer of Scotland. It’s impossible to describe just how much he was hated by the Scottish rebels, and his fate says it all. Cressingham was flayed, and some sources say he was skinned while he was still alive, while others say he was dead. Pieces of his skin were distributed among the victorious as trophies, and the legend says further that Wallace took a particularly large piece of skin and turned it into a belt for his sword.
The events of Stirling Bridge meant that Wallace was a hero, sitting at the top of the victorious Scottish army. Unfortunately for Wallace, it was a short-lived victory.
The Guardian of Scotland
After Wallace routed the English troops at Stirling Bridge, he was honored at a ceremony in Kirk o’ the Forest. Scottish nobles named him Guardian of Scotland, and this is one bit of the Wallace story that historians know a lot about. In 2016, the Scottish Borders Council and the University of Dunham conducted a geophysics survey that uncovered the ruins of the medieval chapel where Wallace would have been honored hundreds of years ago. Unfortunately for the Scots, Wallace’s triumph would quickly turn sour.
Edward I was a monarch not about to stand for the humiliating defeat his troops had suffered at Stirling, and in 1298 he marched on Scotland with thousands of cavalry, infantry, and archers armed with one of England’s greatest weapons — the longbow. And that ended up being Wallace’s weakness. Stirling Bridge may have been a triumph, but this conflict at Falkirk was a brutal defeat for Wallace and his rebels.
The English monarch had learned from the mistakes the military made at Stirling Bridge. Wallace had favored a technique where he put his spearmen into a series of groups called schiltrons, and against calvary, it was a brilliant and deadly strategy. Against longbows, it wasn’t nearly as effective and, for the first time, Edward I’s longbows decimated an enemy. Those that didn’t fall to the raining arrows were sent fleeing by charges from the English calvary, and although both sides suffered massive losses, Wallace lost something else — support.
Wallace retreated to regroup, and for the next few years, he disappeared from mainstream history. The hero who had, not long ago, sent letters to the other leaders of Europe proclaiming Scotland’s independence from England had escaped, but he also resigned his position as Guardian of Scotland. Over the next few years, he travelled abroad and met with some of those same leaders, hoping to cement allies for the Scottish cause. Like the sources for much of Wallace’s life, sources that talk about his time abroad also vary greatly in the details, but there are some fascinating tidbits to be gleaned from them.
An outlaw and a traitor
It’s not 100 percent clear just where Wallace went first, but it’s likely his first stop was Norway. From there, it seems as though he headed to France, and a strange thing reportedly happened. Wallace’s trip to France happened at the same time Edward I was marrying his second wife, and that was Margaret, sister to France’s Philip IV. The marriage was, by most accounts, an unconditionally happy one, and when the young queen was widowed at just 26 years old, she swore to never remarry — and didn’t. It also did what it was supposed to — it brought the two long-time enemies together just long enough that England could turn her sights to putting down rebellion in Scotland.
And according to some sources, France’s Phillip IV was on such friendly terms with Edward I that when Wallace turned up at the French court — no doubt expecting to find someone who hated the English as much as he did — he was actually arrested. Philip offered to hand Wallace over to the English crown, but strangely, he was just thanked for the gesture and asked to keep Wallace there. For safekeeping? Perhaps, but if there’s anything history has taught us it’s that England and France just can’t seem to stay on the same side for long.
Within the year, Wallace had gotten back into the good graces of the French king. Not only was he released, but historians believe they knew where he had planned on going next to plead his case for Scottish independence: Rome.
But here’s where things get slightly complicated, and it’s also the perfect example of just how little we really know about Scotland’s largest hero. It’s going to take a little bit of fast-forwarding, all the way to 2011. At the time, there was a letter sitting in the National Archives in London, and it was said to be a safe-conduct letter written by Philip IV and addressed to the Pope. The letter confirmed Wallace’s high standing with the court of France and asked the Pope to consider that when he was deciding whether or not to hear Wallace’s case. There were two theories as to the provenance of the letter. One suggested it had been taken from Wallace when he was arrested by English forces in 1305, while another suggested it had been carried by someone else entirely and intercepted by spies.
The letter was given to the National Records of Scotland under a long-term loan agreement, but there’s still a lot of mystery surrounding it. There’s no evidence to suggest Wallace ever made it to Rome, and when it comes to the question of whether or not he was carrying the letter when he was arrested, the closest experts have been able to get to an answer is “probably?”.
And that’s surprising. Wallace is this important, larger-than-life figure that represents Scottish independence, but when it comes to concrete facts and artifacts, there’s just not that much there. This letter — along with the letter to Lubeck we mentioned earlier — is it, as far as Wallace documents go.
That said, we’re getting to the end of Wallace’s tale. And, it’s not a happy ending. Some accounts suggest that around 1303, Edward I offered Wallace the chance to surrender and pledge his loyalty to the English crown — several times, in fact. Wallace refused, and even that’s up for historical debate. The sources that claim clemency was offered are English so… it’s unclear just what the truth is. It’s not known exactly when he returned to Scotland from traveling to Europe, but we do know he was showing up in skirmishes across the countryside in 1303.
After his refusal to bend the knee to England and Edward I, Wallace was officially declared a traitor to the crown and an outlaw. The declaration was a powerful one, and it meant it was open season on him. Anyone could kill him without mercy or feeling the least bit guilty, and on the same note, giving him aid or safe passage was considered treason. It wasn’t long before he was captured and handed over to the English, by a fellow Scotsman named Sir John Menteith.
And this is where we can say, without a doubt, that we definitely know exactly what happened to Wallace. He was executed in London’s Smithfield area on Monday, the 23rd of August, 1305. We know because the event — the spectacle, even — was recorded by numerous monastic chroniclers, and for the most part, their testimony was the same.
The execution itself was a long, gruesome affair, but there was a method to the madness. The punishments were handed out to fit the crimes he had been found guilty of, and first was the crime of treason. As punishment, horses dragged him through the streets of London to the site of his execution. Next was the punishment for murder and robbery, and that was to be hanged until not quite dead. He was cut down, and then suffered his punishment for the desecration of churches: he was castrated and disemboweled, his organs set on fire in front of him. Whether or not he was aware of what was going on, sources are vague — they do seem to agree that when he was cut down from the gallows, he was still very much alive.
Lastly was the punishment for being named an outlaw: beheading. His head was mounted on London Bridge, and what was left of the rest of his body was cut into four parts and displayed in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Perth, and Stirling.
When we call the entire thing a spectacle, it really was. His execution marked the opening of the Bartholomew Fair, which was one of the largest communal gatherings in 14th century England. There’s a bit of irony here, too, in that Saint Bartholomew was both the patron saint of butchers and of tanners. Was Edward I making a statement, bringing an end to Wallace’s rebellion on the day dedicated to the patron saint of butchers?
It is, of course, impossible to say for sure, but… some food for thought. Saint Bartholomew’s apocryphal literature has him learning the secret cosmic knowledge from the divine, bringing together goats, leopards, and even a werewolf in peace. Wallace reportedly skinned Hugh de Cressingham and wore his hide as a belt long before he was beheaded by the English king, and Saint Bartholomew was both skinned and beheaded before being dismembered and having his remains scattered to the four winds. Much like Bartholomew became one of Christendom’s most tormented martyrs, Wallace became an even more important figure for Scottish resistance after his execution and remained so for hundreds of years.