Sir William Wallace (c. 1270 – August 23, 1305) was a Scots
knight who led his countrymen in resistance to English domination in the reign
of King Edward I, during significant periods of the Wars of Scottish
Tradition often describes Wallace as 'one of the common people', contrasted to his countrymen, such as Robert the Bruce, who came from noble stock. Wallace's family descends from Richard Wallace the Welshman, a landowner under an early member of the House of Stuart, which later became royal lineage.
While some suggest Wallace was born around 1270, the 16th century work History of William Wallace and Scottish Affairs claims his year of birth at 1276. Due to the lack of conclusive evidence, Wallace's birthdate and birthplace are disputed. Traditionally, the birthplace of William Wallace is claimed to be Elderslie, near Paisley in Renfrewshire; although a biographer recently suggested that his birthplace was closer to Ellerslie, near Kilmarnock in Ayrshire. In support of the Ellerslie origins, some proposed that William's traditional father, Malcolm Wallace of Elderslie, a knight and vassal to James the Steward, actually came from Riccarton, Ayrshire, and Malcolm's wife from nearby Loudoun. Additionally, some of Wallace's earliest actions were in Ayrshire. To the contrary, the Elderslie origins are defended with the arguments that Ellerslie is a former mining village known only from the 19th century, whereas Elderslie is known from earlier. Wallace's first action was at Lanark, which is near neither Elderslie nor Ellerslie, and afterward he moved into Ayrshire to join some Scots nobles who were fighting the English at Irvine.
The 1999 rediscovery of William Wallace's seal further enshrouds Wallace's early history in mystery. While tradition claims Sir Malcolm Wallace of Elderslie as the father of three sons, Malcolm, John, and William Wallace, the seal identifies William as the son of Alan Wallace of Ayrshire, who appears in the Ragman Roll of 1296 as "crown tenant of Ayrshire". Dr. Fiona Watson in "A Report into Sir William Wallace's connections with Ayrshire", published in March 1999, reassesses the early life of William Wallace and concludes, "Sir William Wallace was a younger son of Alan Wallace, a crown tenant in Ayrshire". Historian Andrew Fisher, author of William Wallace (2002), writes, "If the Alan of the Ragman Roll was indeed the patriot's father, then the current argument in favour of an Ayrshire rather than a Renfrewshire origin for Wallace can be settled".
Wallace was educated in French and Latin by two uncles who had become priests. Blind Harry does not mention Wallace's departure from Scotland or that Wallace had combat experience prior to 1297. A record from August 1296 references "a thief, one William le Waleys" in Perth.
At the time of Wallace's birth, King Alexander III had
reigned for over twenty years. His rule had seen a period of peace and economic
stability, and he had successfully fended off continuing English claims to
suzerainty. In 1286, Alexander died after falling from his horse; none of his
children survived him. The Scots lords declared Alexander's 4 year-old
granddaughter, Margaret (called 'the Maid of Norway'), Queen. Due to her age,
they set up an interim government to administer Scotland until she came of age.
King Edward took advantage of the potential 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 nation. But
Margaret fell ill and died at only 8 years old (1290) on her way from her native
Norway to Scotland. A number of claimants to the Scottish throne came forward
Contrary to popular belief, John Balliol had a right to the throne. However, the Scots deemed it desirable to have an independent arbitrator to determine the issue — in order to avoid accusations of bias. Shrewdly, the Scots invited King Edward I of England to decide the royal succession. Instead of coming as an independent arbitrator, he arrived at the Anglo-Scottish border with a large army and announced that he had come as an overlord to solve a dispute in a vassal state, forcing each potential king to pay homage to him. After hearing every claim, Edward in 1292 picked Balliol to reign over what he described as "the vassal state of Scotland". In March of 1296, Balliol renounced his homage to Edward, and by the end of the month Edward had stormed Berwick-upon-Tweed, sacking the then Scottish border town with much bloodshed. He slaughtered almost everyone who resided there, even if they fled to the churches. Pope Boniface VIII at this time kept his court in Edward's dominions in Gascony, and gave him a medal for his actions. In April, he defeated the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar (1296) in Lothian, and by July he had forced Balliol to abdicate at Kincardine Castle. Edward went to Berwick in August to receive formal homage from some 2,000 Scots nobles (see Ragman Roll), having previously removed the Stone of Destiny from Scone Palace, the stone on which all of the Kings of Scots had been crowned.
According to local Ayrshire legend, two English soldiers challenged Wallace
in the Lanark marketplace regarding his catching of fish. The argument escalated
into a brawl in which the two soldiers were killed. The authorities issued a
warrant for his arrest shortly thereafter. Whatever the truth of this story,
Wallace had long hated the English.
Wallace murdered Sir William Heselrig, the English Sheriff of Lanark, in May 1297, and dismembered his corpse, supposedly to avenge the death of Marion Braidfute of Lamington—the young maiden Wallace allegedly courted and married in Blind Harry's tale. No evidence exists to corroborate this detail. Soon, he achieved victory in battles at Loudoun Hill (near Darvel, Ayrshire) and Ayr; he also fought alongside Sir William Douglas in Scone, routing the English justiciar, William de Ormesby. Supporters of the growing revolt suffered a major blow when Scots nobles agreed to terms with the English at Irvine in July. In August, Wallace left Selkirk Forest to join Andrew de Moray's army at Stirling. Moray began another uprising, and their forces combined at Stirling, where they prepared to meet the English in battle.
On September 11, 1297, Wallace achieved victory at the Battle
of Stirling Bridge. Although vastly outnumbered, the Scots forces led by Andrew
de Moray (a more prominent noble, being a first son) and with Wallace as their
captain, routed the English army. The Earl of Surrey's professional army of 300
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. English soldiers started to retreat as
others pushed forward, and under the overwhelming weight, the bridge collapsed
and many English soldiers drowned. Unbeknownst to the now chaotic English army,
part of the Scots army had forded further up the river. With the English army
divided opposite each bank of the river, the two Scot forces pressed both halves
of the English army towards the river. The Scots won an overwhelming victory and
hugely boosted the confidence of their army. Hugh Cressingham, Edward's
treasurer in Scotland, died in the fighting. Moray died of wounds suffered on
the battlefield three months after the Battle of Stirling Bridge.
Upon his return from the Battle of Stirling Bridge, Robert the Bruce knighted and elected Wallace the "Guardian of the Kingdom of Scotland and Leader of its armies", now Sir William Wallace. The legality of this title is disputed, as Robert the Bruce was not technically king of Scotland.
A year later the military tables turned at the Battle of
Falkirk. On April 1, 1298, the English had invaded Scotland at Roxburgh. They
plundered Lothian and regained some castles, but had failed to bring Wallace to
combat. The Scots had adopted a 'scorched-earth' policy, and English suppliers'
mistakes had left morale and food low, but Edward's search for Wallace would end
Wallace had 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 wreaking havoc through the Scots archers. The Scots knights fled, and Edward's men began to attack the schiltrons. It remains unclear whether the infantry throwing bolts, arrows and stones at the spearmen proved the deciding factor, or a cavalry attack from the rear.
Either way, gaps in the schiltrons soon appeared, and the English exploited these to crush the remaining resistance. The Scots lost many men, but Wallace escaped, though his pride and military reputation suffered badly.
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. He spent some time in France on a presumed diplomatic mission, although the true reason is unknown.
Sir William evaded capture by the English until August 5,
1305, when Sir John de Menteith, a Scots knight loyal to Edward, turned Wallace
over to English soldiers at Robroystoun, near Glasgow. Wallace was transported
to London and tried for treason 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
charge, "I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject." The
absent John Balliol was officially his king; however, Wallace was declared
On August 23, 1305, following the trial Wallace was removed from the courtroom, stripped naked and dragged at the heels of a horse to Smithfield Market. He was strangled by hanging, but released near death, emasculated, drawn and quartered, and beheaded, rendering the execution complete at the Elms in Smithfield, London. His head was placed on a pike atop London Bridge, which was later joined by the heads of his brother, John, and Sir Simon Fraser. His limbs were displayed, separately, in Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling, and Perth.
The plaque in the photograph above 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.
A sword which supposedly belonged to Wallace was held for many years in Dumbarton Castle, and is now in the Wallace National Monument near Stirling. However, examination of the sword by the experts has concluded that its design belongs to a period a few centuries after Wallace.
In 2005, the 700th anniversary of Wallace's execution, his
sword became the most popular feature of an exhibition in New York during the
celebrations of Tartan Week. This marked the first time the sword, weighing 6
pounds (2.5 kilograms) and measuring five feet and four inches, was removed from
A symbolic funeral was held at the site of Wallace's execution in Smithfield, London with an empty coffin. While the event hosted 300 attendees, more than 900 people unsuccessfully applied for tickets to the event — a testament to Wallace's enduring legacy.