Wallace is often seen as being 'one of the common people' in comparison to his fellow countryman, Robert the Bruce (Robert I of Scotland), who was of noble stock. Wallace's family was descended from Richard Wallace, a landowner under an early member of the Stewart family, which was later to become a royal line in its own right. Wallace was born at Elderslie near Paisley, in a year unknown, although he was almost certainly still a young man in his most famous years between 1297 and 1305.
There are few contemporary sources for information about Wallace's early life, and much reliance is placed on the account of Blind Harry, written around 1470, almost two centuries after Wallace's death. We are told that he was born in Ayrshire, his father was Sir Malcolm Wallace of Elderslie, and that he had two brothers, Malcolm and John.
He was educated by two uncles who were priests, and was therefore well educated by the standards of the time, knowing both French and Latin. Blind Harry makes no mention of his ever having left the country, or having any military experience before 1297. A record from August, 1296 makes reference to 'a thief, one William le Waleys' in Perth.
|Table of contents|
2 Wallace's exploits begin
3 The battle of Stirling Bridge
4 The battle of Falkirk (1298)
5 Wallace's capture and execution
Scotland in Wallace's time
The crisis in deciding Scotland's succession had led to England's King Edward effectively choosing the Scottish king, John Balliol. In March 1296, Balliol renounced his homage to Edward, and by the end of the month Edward had stormed Berwick-upon-Tweed, sacking the border town with much bloodshed. In April, he defeated the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar (1296) in Lothian, and by July, Balliol had been forced to abdicate at Kincardine Castle. Edward went to Berwick in August to receive formal homage from some 2,000 Scottish leaders, having previously removed the Stone of Destiny from Scone Palace, seat of Scottish kings. Scotland was now effectively under English rule.
Wallace's exploits begin
The following year, 1297, was to see the start of Wallace's rise to prominence. William Haselrig, the English sheriff of Lanark, had murdered Marion Braidfute, Wallace's wife or mistress, and Wallace took his revenge by killing the Sheriff, and burning his castle. By May he was fighting with Sir William Douglas in Scone, routing the English justiciar, William Ormsby. Supporters of the growing popular revolt suffered a major blow when Scottish nobles agreed terms with the English at Irvine in July, and in August, Wallace left his base in Selkirk forest to join Andrew Murray's army at Stirling. Murray had started another rising, and their forces combined at Stirling, where they prepared to meet the English in battle.
The battle of Stirling Bridge
September 11, 1297, saw a decisive victory for Wallace and the Scots at Stirling Bridge. The Scottish forces ambushed the English at the bridge over the Forth, led by Wallace and Andrew Murray, another low-ranking nobleman. 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; they were either killed on the end of the Scots' long spears, or drowned in the Forth, dragged down by the weight of their own armour. Historians believe the marshy ground around the bridge also helped secure the downfall of the English. Hugh Cressingham, Edward's treasurer in Scotland, was killed in the fighting.
Following his victory, Wallace was made a knight and Guardian of Scotland in March 1298.
The battle of Falkirk (1298)
A year later, however, the tables were to be turned. On June 25, 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 at Falkirk.
Wallace had arranged his spearmen in four 'schiltrons' – circular, hedgehog formations surrounded by a defensive wall of wooden stakes. The English were to gain the upper hand, however, attacking first with cavalry, and wreaking havoc through the Scottish archers. The Scottish knights fled, and Edward's men began to attack the schiltrons. It is not clear whether the infantry throwing bolts, arrows and stones at the spearmen was 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 were badly damaged.
By September, 1298, Wallace had decided to resign his guardianship to Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick, and John Comyn of Badenoch, ex-King John Balliol's brother-in-law. Bruce became reconciled with Edward in 1302, while Wallace spurned such moves towards peace.
Wallace's capture and execution
Sir William managed to evaded capture by the English until May 1305, when he was captured near Glasgow, by Sir John de Menteith, a Scottish knight loyal to Edward. After a show trial, he was horribly executed by the English on August 23, 1305, at Smithfield, London in the traditional manner for a traitor. He was hanged, then cut down to be disembowelled when still alive, and his head placed on a spike in London Bridge. His limbs were displayed in a grisly fashion in Newcastle, Berwick, Edinburgh, and Perth.
The plaque in the photograph above is on a wall of St Bartholomew's Hospital near the site of Wallace's execution at Smithfield. It is often visited by Scottish patriots and other interested people and flowers are frequently left there.
The 1995 motion picture, Braveheart, is a very loose account of William Wallace's life.